Often, university biotechnology students have to wait until their final year of study before being allowed to spend any length of time in a high-tech lab and get anywhere near to performing the advanced scientific experiments they went into biotechnology for.
Until then, much of their time is spent studying dog-eared textbooks in minute detail and scribbling down abstract concepts, which seemingly have no useful applications in the real world.
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 – a worrying statistic for the pharmaceutical sector, as many students who may have had the potential to make it big in biotechnology are not even making it past the starting gates.
But new technology – in the form of an e-learning video game – is seeking to change this, by allowing biotechnology students to 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 in June 2013 and is already being used at Stanford University and Copenhagen University, is a virtual laboratory containing millions of dollars worth of advanced equipment that students can use to perform experiments that are too expensive, time-consuming or unsafe to perform in a physical lab.
A drop in drop outs: the potential impact of Labster
For Labster co-founder and CEO Mads Bonde, who has extensive experience in biotechnology research and has taught at both high school and university level, technology such as this could really reduce the number of students dropping out of science degrees, potentially having a positive impact on the future of the pharmaceutical industry.
"Many students drop out of their degrees at the beginning, where they have a lot of basic learning that is often far removed from the potential exciting future they are heading to," he said.
"What we can do with Labster, though, is tie the basic knowledge and basic learning – the principles they really need to understand – into why it is extremely interesting and why it has important applications. For instance, with our murder case, you can learn about how to solve a crime with DNA analysis, instead of just performing a DNA analysis without any reflection on what it can be used for."
Many of the Labster cases are based on real-world scenarios. For example, on top of convicting criminals with PCR and gel electrophoresis, students can investigate the condition ‘Asian Glow’ with enzyme kinetics experiments and develop bioethanol from waste in a bioreactor.
Bonde is also keen to add that, as the product has been created in the form of a video game, it is far more motivating and fun than current scientific teaching techniques, resulting in more inspired students.
"Through my own studies and my teaching, I could see that the current scientific teaching was not working very well; it was both ineffective and high cost," he remarked. "So I wanted to solve this problem by creating a product that is more motivating, more effective and also more fun to use for students."
So far, the feedback Labster has received from universities has borne this out. "They’re saying that students are really motivated and inspired and they can also see that the students are learning from Labster to a high degree," Bonde confirmed. "Some universities are even replacing real lab exercises with our product in cases where that makes sense and seeing really good results."
Effective training tool: Labster could be used by Big Pharma too
It’s not just universities that can benefit from this new e-learning technology. Labster has also piqued the interest of pharmaceutical companies, including Novo Nordisk, Novozymes and Idexx, that want to partner with Bonde and his team to create virtual lab training programmes for their staff.
"Currently, if pharmaceutical companies need to train their staff to operate a new machine or do a new procedure, there is a very large cost," Bonde explained. "And mistakes are very costly. So being able to effectively train staff without wasting chemicals or having to pay for the maintenance of the machines would result in huge savings for pharmaceutical companies."
Labster has also had interest from companies wanting to train their non-scientific staff on the basics of biotechnology. "Labster can educate them on at least the most important science the company is working on, which can be really hard for non-science professionals to understand," Bonde noted.
In both of these cases, the pharmaceutical company in question would be able to work with the Labster team closely in order to create a virtual lab that met their precise training needs.
"We would combine their expertise in a specific subject with our expertise in creating these engaging and effective cases, and depending on the size of the case, it would be ready within two to four months," Bonde explained.
Revolutionary technology: changing the future of science education
In the future, Labster’s clients – both educational establishments and pharmaceutical companies – might even be able to create their own cases from scratch.
"One of our main new ideas is to develop a lab builder, where students and teachers can go in and design their own labs and cases," Bonde said.
"We also hope to expand Labster’s features in terms of the possibilities and the content and move from covering only biotechnology into covering biology, physics and chemistry too."
So, could technology such as Labster really have a last impact on teaching and training techniques in the pharmaceutical sector?
From Bonde – a resounding yes. "Definitely," he concluded. "I believe products like Labster and other new educational technology that is emerging are a large part of the future. In fact, I think we will see a revolution in science teaching, and teaching in general. The current methods are ineffective and they’re wasting resources. Students could be more engaged and better educated, as well as being more motivated and having fun at the same time."
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