Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Interactive Biotechnique Tutorials

Ok, who’s the molecular biologist in the group? (*silence… nothing but the sound of distant crickets chirping*) Hmm. Ok, well, I’ll ask the question differently. Who would like to be a forensic investigator like those hot shots on CSI! (*dozens on hands go up*) Ok that’s better. (*smile*)


If you would like to try your hands at safe and fun interactive tutorials on how to conduct some standard molecular biology techniques then you will want to visit Genetics Learning Center of the University of Utah. I spent a couple of hours last night reviewing their website. Particularly interactive was their Biotechniques Virtual Laboratory where I conducted three experiments virtually.
  1. I extracted DNA from cheek cells of a person.

  2. I separated DNA species using gel electrophoresis.

  3. I used a fancy technique called DNA Microarray to show that cancer cells express different proteins than normal non-cancer cells.

I did all that stuff and had fun doing it. I found that the material presented in these Flash animations was excellent. Clearly these tutorials were well thought out. There is a good balance between underlying biochemical theory and laboratory practice; motion was used in the animation to show microscopic zooming and to give users a feel for operating scientific equipment; audio is used to augment the motion in the animations and to supply authentic sounds of scientific equipment; the combination of useful motion, audio and interactive tasks for the user gives these tutorial a game-based feel which clearly makes them fun; and the DNA Microarray tutorial even had some self-assessment questions at the end of it to ensure that users correctly understood how to interpret the results of their experiment.

Apart from the three excellent tutorials in the Biotechniques Virtual Laboratory, there are a plethora of other learning and teaching resources on this same website, including full lesson plans for modules on hot topics such as cloning, gene therapy, pharmacogenetics and stem cell research. (Note: primarily targeted for the K-12 demographic.)

If you are a rabid CSI fan or closet molecular biologist, you’ll want to bookmark this website!

2 comments:

Colin Milligan said...

Well I was a molecular biologist, and I did the gel electrophoresis activity. I think it is vitally important to realise that this is an animation, with gross oversimplifications left right and centre. But that presents real problems where things like pouring gels properly (you'd never get a good wells if you put the comb in after the gel was poured) and careful loading of DNA samples (where the message seems to be make sure you do it so that you get a splash) are glossed over or misrepresented.

I was taught all this stuff face to face and fail to see how a video (or better still text/images, with short video clips) wouldn't be infinitely better. Students would then be exposed to good practice and see the real experiments, and real results at the end.

A deeper question might be what purpose the learning material serves if not as demonstration. It could get by with some oversimplification if it were a proper experiment which allowed the user to think (what gel strength resolves DNA strands of the length I am interested in) and make mistakes (you only ever connect up the leads back to front once in your career) but ultimately, as an interactive experience all I was really able to do was click forward (or work out what was stopping the forward button from working).

Sorry to rant, but there is plenty of good science learning material out there.

Eric said...

Hey Colin,

Thanks a bunch for writing such a detailed comment. I agree with many of the points you mentioned and the reason why my review did not touch upon most of your points is because I considered the target market for these Flash demos to be non-molecular biologists (i.e. K-12 students and/or lay non-biochemist type people). For this target market, I believe these interactive demos are excellent. However, I would never use this in a real training situation. To me they are not training aids. I would not support using these demos to train an undergraduate university or college student in how to actually run a DNA gel in the hopes that they could interact with this demo today and come into the lab tomorrow and run a gel by themselves. As you highlighted, there are a great many practicalities that are not addressed in the gel electrophoresis demo. Only a face-to-face real life run through the procedure can impart the necessary information. As well, the ability of a student to ask important questions throughout the procedure is invaluable. These Flash demos can never replace that.

As for your comment about video possibly being ‘better’ as a training aid than these animated demos, I will agree with you if you are talking about training a real molecular biologist. Nothing replaces looking at the real thing. (Even then, I think video cannot replace a face-to-face run through though.) However, for the K-12 group and for non-biochemist, the Flash demos have a game-like feeling that a video could never have. In my view, for this target market of K-12 (Mark Prensky’s digital natives!) and non-biochemist, the motivation produced by the game-like setting of these demos may increase the learning. It’s just my feeling. We could design an interesting experiment to test this couldn’t we? (*smile*)

Thanks Colin.

-Eric