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B³ - Projects - Restructuring a Biochemistry Lab


Learn More about Restructuring a Biochemistry Lab

There is evidence that current lab courses fail to teach experimental design and critical thinking, as usually students are given a lab manual with fully designed experiments and step-by-step procedures; meaning that little critical thinking goes into the actual lab workday. Rather, the focus is on instrument handling, familiarization with experimental procedures and data interpretation in the form of a lab report, which seems appropriate for first-year courses that train these basic skills, but lacks instructional depth, particularly during the second year of instruction, when a problem-based approach needs to be incorporated.

In classical university-based laboratory training in some countries, the first one or two years used to be spent by the students experimenting relatively freely with relatively low-cost materials and simple tasks, for example in analytical inorganic chemistry laboratories with very little supervision. While effective, such avenues of teaching are very time-consuming and require a high degree of tenacity and resilience in the students, often resulting in non-completion of the respective courses. For Bachelor programs in the life sciences, another approach is needed to train problem-based methodology in a time-efficient manner.

In the face of these challenges and observations, the project proposes the following specific solutions:

  1. Using a Problem-Based, Inverted approach to teach Experimental Design: Students are assigned a scientific problem well before the lab course begins, and are additionally given the information needed to address it (available materials, experimental methods and so on) in order to develop the appropriate experiment. In other words, it is the students’ task to put together the building blocks of the experiment addressing their scientific problem. The aim is to develop an experimental procedure to be followed in the lab subsequently. In this way, students develop the lab manual, which is later quality-controlled and approved by peers with input from supervisors.
  2. Incorporating Digital Interventions to teach Experimental Design: Asynchronous digital solutions replacing in-person teaching at Jacobs University have proven quite successful when in-person teaching is not possible. More specifically, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the “Advanced Biochemistry Lab Course” relied on some experiment-introductory videos. Therefore, designing this lab course with a problem-based approach for the future will also include a series of tailor-made videos, that will present content such as: theoretical background, experimental methods and equipment handling. These visual aids aim to increase the students’ level of understanding before the course begins, fostering autonomy and encouraging them to develop their own solutions to a problem, as opposed to being handed an extensive lab manual.

    The new course will cover the following phases:

    a) Preparatory Phase: Students are given preparatory material three weeks before the beginning of the lab course, including:
    1. Paper detailing their project/scientific problem
    2. Methodology videos, which detail the kinds of controls required and the multiplicates (duplicates, triplicates) needed for statistics.
    3. Instrument handling videos
    4. Material Safety Data Sheet format (empty)
    5. Example of a common lab manual produced at the end of the experimental design session
    6. Example of a final lab report

    b) Beginning of the Course:
    - At the start of the course, students will join experimental design sessions in a collaborative way in order to produce experimental procedures, presenting their plans to peers for constructive feedback
    - Once a common lab manual is produced, it will be quality-controlled and finalized after inter-group discussion and input from supervisors before the first lab day.

    c) Course Development:
    The first groups of students will work in the lab while the other groups do seminars on biochemical calculations, writing/format, statistical methods etc. Subsequent groups will follow with their lab work afterwards.

    d) Course Conclusion:
    Upon completion of lab work phase, it is envisioned to have a student-led wrap up session to exchange data, interpret the results, and discuss presentation of lab reports.

As proposed by the researchers, Jacobs University is the ideal place to implement a problem-based approach to lab courses for two reasons: Firstly, because students deeply care about career-skill building, and secondly, in a highly creative process such as experimental design, peer-instruction and collaboration amongst diverse group of students leads to surprising, effective outcomes and multifaceted approaches to problem solving. The goal is to have as little top-down supervision as possible, while still allowing for a productive, well-structured course. For the successful implementation of this Project, expertise from various academic partners will be considered.

The project will gather important information on the extent to which laboratory courses in the life sciences can be individualized. One specific question, among many, is what kind of additional effort is required to implement this avenue, especially in terms of funding for teaching assistants, but also for material. This, in turn, will inform future curricular decisions on the arrangement of lab courses in the different disciplines during the studies of life sciences at Jacobs University.

Project Chair: Prof. Sebastian Springer DPhil

  • Prof. Sebastian Springer DPhil
    Jacobs University

Restructuring a Biochemistry Lab - Video with Professor Springer

In this video, Professor Sebastian Springer discusses his experiences as a long time professor in the field of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, running laboratory courses at Jacobs University, and how he seeks to innovate the pedagogical approach of the course “Advanced Biochemistry Lab” by introducing digital tools and student-centered initiatives. The “Bildung Beyond Boundaries” (B³) Framework sponsors the important work of Professor Springer through his project “Restructuring a Biochemistry Lab”.