Often, university students have to wait until their final year of study before being allowed to spend quality time in a high-tech lab and get anywhere near to performing the advanced scientific experiments they’ve been dreaming about since childhood. Until then, much of their time is spent poring over dog-eared textbooks and scribbling down abstract concepts, which seemingly have no useful applications in the real world: not really what you go into biotechnology for.
And for many, it’s too little, too late. Indeed, roughly 40% of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to a different subject or failing to get any degree at all (see Drew, C. Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard). The New York Times, 2011). But – thanks to new virtual technology – this may not be the case for much longer.

Now, by using a new e-learning video game called Labster, biotechnology students can perform the experiments that inspired them to embark on a career in science almost as soon as they arrive at university – or even from their high school classroom. Labster, which launched last month, and is already being used at Stanford University and Copenhagen University, among other top schools, is a virtual laboratory containing millions of dollars worth of advanced equipment, which allows biotech students to do everything from sequencing DNA from ancient caveman bones to identifying murderers through blood samples.

Through Labster, students can get unlimited access to previously prohibitively expensive technologies, such as the $700,000 Next Generation Sequencing Machine, as well as being able to perform experiments in a fraction of the time they would take in a real-life lab situation. They can learn by doing, by playing and by experimenting with equipment and techniques they would never normally have had access to, rather than simply by reading, a learning technique that has been proven to be more effective than traditional classroom teaching.

Moreover, the fact that it’s in the form of a video game means it’s fun and light-hearted, something that’s already led to great feedback from students. “The fact that it’s like a game makes you actually want to learn/virtually go through the lab exercise,” said one student who has been using Labster at SDU. His counterpart at Copenhagen University agreed: “It was a fun and more captivating way to learn,” he said. “I got a lot out of it.”

One of Labster’s other great features is the fact that students can see the inner workings of an experiment as it’s happening – via 3D interactive animations – something that neither a textbook nor traditional in-lab teaching can provide. These detailed animations are then followed by a series of quiz questions, which aim to ensure that, when students do finally get into the real-world lab, they’ll have a much better understanding of what’s going on than they would have otherwise.

Sound pretty good already? Well, it’s not quite over yet – there’s just one more piece of good news. For a limited time only, Labster is free for everyone, so there’s no excuse for biotech students all over the world not to be involved in a movement that could potentially revolutionise the future of science education.

Thanks to Tamara Tjitrowirjo for the above guest post from Labster.com.