IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Gamification Is Catching on Through Virtual Science Labs

K-12 schools and universities in several states are using gamification to teach science through virtual experiments, simulators and LMS integrations like those offered by the global ed-tech company Labster.

Schools in all 50 states are supplementing or even replacing the beaker and Bunsen burners found in traditional lab settings with a simulation program that teaches science through gamification — incorporating elements of game-playing in order to make the program more engaging.

They're doing this through Labster, a global ed-tech company with a U.S. office in Boston, which last month announced a free upgrade to its Virtual Science Lab, affecting about 80 percent of its science lab simulators on individual devices as well as learning management systems at both high school and college levels.

According to a news release, the upgrade includes “a hint and guidance system that will nudge students in the right direction toward successful completion of their assignments when needed.”

“Labster plays an important role in helping students complete challenging STEM courses, so it’s critical that we leverage the power of our platform to support their learning and progress through each simulation,” Labster co-founder and CEO Michael Bodekaer Jensen said in a public statement.

In an email to Government Technology last week, Bodekaer Jensen and Mark Fuller, Labster’s product marketing director, noted that the upgrade also includes 50 new science simulations, access for non-English speakers and students with disabilities, mobile apps for iPads and Chromebooks, new onboarding instructions, an online channel for teachers, and a feature that allows the program to be opened directly from Canvas, Blackboard and other major learning management systems.

Bodekaer Jensen and Fuller said the Savannah-Chatham e-Learning Academy in Georgia has replaced its traditional science labs with this technology. In Massachusetts, Virtual Science Lab is used at Nimuk High School to engage students and pique their interest in the subject matter before they conduct experiments in a real lab.

Company officials could not provide metrics to measure the performance of students or schools that use Labster, but they said the New York State Board of Regents has approved their technology to satisfy the 1,200 hours of lab experience required for high school graduation. California, which has similar requirements, has not approved virtual simulators in place of actual lab work, Bodekaer Jensen said.

In an email to Government Technology, Labster's lead product manager Sarah Jayne Boulton said applying gamification to STEM instruction fills in the gap of knowledge students often miss when classes rely too much on memorization techniques to consolidate foundational information. For example, she said a biological anatomy simulation shifts the cognitive load from just memorizing the names and descriptions of bones to critical reasoning, evaluation and insight.

“If a goal is set to learn the names of bones by rebuilding a disassembled skeleton, not only does the student see the progress they are making as they gradually complete the activity, [but] they can celebrate their achievement on completion," she wrote. "The explorative nature of effective gamified learning scenarios also creates multiple opportunities for self-assessment and reflection along the way.”

As for chemistry, Boulton added, the main benefit of gamification is to reduce the risk of physical harm during labs, and to spend more time on instruction than lab prep and cleanup. She said a gaming approach to teaching the periodic tables can also spark students’ desire to investigate and apply knowledge about impact factors for chemical synthesis.

More than 300 simulations are listed in the catalog on Labster’s website. At the university level, for example, there’s an exercise where users can create a working model of the human nervous system. For high school physics, there’s a module where students are challenged to gain an understanding of sound waves before they tune a rock star’s guitar. And for both high school- and college-level students, there’s an experiment where they must learn about the synthesis of aspirin to cure a peer’s migraine headache. These offerings are interactive, allowing the user to access a device to move the virtual lab technician, or main character in the game, select objects and actions, and work to accomplish the goal by completing steps in the correct order within a certain time frame.

Labster company officials said the Virtual Lab technology also supports equity in education because their “million-dollar laboratory is available to any student, any time.” Fuller said the technology is available in five languages and has experiments available for students with vision, hearing or learning impairments. He added that its diverse on-screen characters, inclusive design and multi-learning approach promote equity within STEM programs.

“If I cannot make science relevant to an English language learner ... or to a student who has been marginalized, why am I here?” Fuller wrote in an email. “They've never had access to something that's that game-changing.”

Labster’s website promotes free webinars on the topic of the digital divide in STEM with Pennsylvania State University math professor Nate Brown. In an interview with Government Technology, Brown said he is unfamiliar with technologies that claim to bridge the digital divide, and he does not endorse any companies, but he underscored the importance of teaching methods and tools — whether traditional or technology-based — that enable students to work together in small groups.

In small groups, often the suggestions of females and minorities are discounted by their peers, Brown said. Identifying those negative behavior patterns, correcting them and fostering more productive collaboration among group members goes a long way toward establishing equity in education.

“The general principal is building community amongst students,” Brown said. “Anything instructors can do to build that community helps, especially giving them group projects where the success of the group depends on the high-functioning dynamics of the group.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.