Undergraduate lab software moves into biology and physics

When the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry decided in 2005 to overhaul what is taught in its undergraduate teaching laboratories the move began to influence the teaching and learning of science students around the world. The reason for this is the web-based, interactive software that was developed to underpin the laboratory learning.

The Dynamic Laboratory Manual (DLM) provides resources to support all the practical work carried out by chemistry undergraduates at the university as well as to remind them of the things they learnt in school. It includes videos, simulations and questions to test the users’ understanding of topics. It also allows students to set up virtual experiments – with ‘glassware’ falling and shattering if it has been clamped in the wrong place – a far less messy process than trying out different experimental setups on the lab bench.

The success of the DLM in Bristol ChemLabS, which is the name of the Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the School of Chemistry, has led to significant expansion of the concept. Versions of the DLM are now being used in other university chemistry departments, including Cardiff and Imperial College London.

What’s more, the same ideas have been used to develop laboratory skills software for school pupils studying A-Level chemistry. Last year the Training Development Agency for Schools announced funding to provide the A-Level LabSkills tool to 4000 state secondary schools in the country. The software is also making its mark on the international stage. Universities in Australia, Canada, Thailand, USA and South Africa are just some of the customers using LabSkills to ensure their undergraduates have an increased knowledge of basic experimental techniques.

The latest project for ChemLabS and the software developer partner, Learning Science Ltd, is to move beyond chemistry. In 2010 the Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellowship Scheme awarded a three-year grant to Bristol ChemLabS and Professor Dudley Shallcross of the School of Chemistry to develop Dynamic Laboratory Techniques Manuals (DLTM) for physics and for biological sciences that will be made available to universities across the country. The aim is to create fundamental laboratory skills tools for first-year undergraduates. The tools will support the techniques students ought to have been taught in school and others to be developed at the start of science degree courses. The tools could also be added to and customised by universities to suit their own practical teaching.

It is still early days for this latest project, according to Tim Harrison, director of outreach at the School of Chemistry, but he hopes that the biological sciences DLTM could be ready for trialling by Christmas, and that the end product could be delivered to universities in Summer 2012 in readiness for the 2012/2013 academic year. The physics DLTM will follow this, although development of the two tools is going on in parallel.

The team behind the project is working with an international board of top physicists, chemists and biologists to determine the scope of the DLTMs, as well as a panel of local school teachers who are looking at the tools from a secondary level teaching perspective. The advisers help identify the differences between disciplines. However, there is plenty of common ground with the existing chemistry tools too. As Harrison pointed out, things like use of significant figures and interpreting errors are common to all sciences, as are issues such as graphing and representing data. Biologists also use some techniques such as titration, just as chemists do.

There is plenty of potential for future development too. “We may consider rolling these tools out for schools too,” said Harrison. There could also be opportunities to follow the international steps that the chemistry DLM has taken. “It’s a slow burner but laboratory skills tools will be everywhere within a decade, whether ours or something similar,” Harrison predicted.

Siân Harris