University of the Western Cape improves inclusion for new students with no previous lab experience

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) began a partnership with LearnSci in January 2020 to prepare students for laboratory lessons. Limited educational resources in South Africa’s schools means students can have very little hands-on experience of working in a lab before university.

Through the introduction of our LabSims platform, UWC was able to level up undergraduates, so that lab work focused less on teaching students how to use equipment and more on curriculum learning.

The Challenge:

To ensure all students start lab practicals confident how to use the equipment

The University of the Western Cape’s vision is to provide higher education access to talented young South Africans from the poorest communities, the vast majority of whom have limited access to technologies.

Many students entering UWC have not been near a laboratory or even witnessed the demonstration of a science experiment in their school career. So, to address this, the university has to equip students with the core skills to succeed in a lab environment. 

“All South African universities face similar problems: we need to impart practical scientific skills, critical thinking and the ability to evaluate data and respond accordingly in a resource-constrained teaching environment. At UWC, the majority of our first-year science class have never been near a laboratory, and many feel overwhelmed at the prospect of doing hands-on science in what is for them a very foreign environment.”
Prof. Mike Davies-Coleman

The Solution:

An interactive online learning environment to prepare for the lab

UWC’s Faculty of Natural Sciences partnered with us to provide their students with pre-practical simulations and Smart Worksheets. Through these online tools, undergraduates were able to learn and practise techniques before even setting foot in a laboratory. 

Implementing LabSims into the learning programme

Dr Juliet Stoltenkamp, Director of the Centre for Innovative Education and Communication Technologies (CIECT), led the integration of the LearnSci tools with UWC’s educational resources, making it accessible for students using UWC’s learning management system iKamva.

The CIECT team established a teaching and learning methodology where ‘LearnSci champions’, identified within the Faculty of Natural Sciences, were shown how to incorporate LabSims into iKamva (a Sakai-based platform).

The LearnSci champions were shown how to build a structured, interactive online laboratory environment, including a Pre-Lab section.

The simulations have been integrated into each degree course’s specific modules, enabling the lecturer to align them with discussion forums and assessments. 

Using our interactive material has helped focus on practical techniques to better-prepare undergraduates before they enter the laboratory. As a result of this preparation, students need less time familiarising themselves in the lab; there is less waste of reagents and fewer breakages of equipment and glassware inevitable during the learning process.

Professor Mike Davies-Coleman
“The pre-lab online practical exercises are a great way to level the playing field before the practical session begins and to build pre-lab confidence.”
Prof. Mike Davies-Coleman
Dr Samuel Egieyeh
"The Learning Science platform, with its interactive animations, provides the students with a basic understanding of the central dogma of molecular biology and provides the link between the basic biotechnology experiments and the complex production process, formulation, and quality control of biologics."
Dr. Samuel Egieyeh
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The Results:

LabSims used by over 1500 students

Pre-Lab interactive simulations employed across multiple courses within the Faculty of Natural Sciences

The Chemistry and Bioscience LabSims have had notable success engaging and building student confidence, especially for those students who had limited laboratory experience before entering the first year of their studies.

34,000 activities were undertaken in first few months of implementation

Accessed by UWC Faculty of Natural Sciences across the LearnSci Chemistry and Bioscience libraries from February to May 2020.

Bioscience and chemistry students completed over 72,000 LabSim activities

Usage report of bioscience and chemistry students from January 2020 to June 2021

The resources supplement other learning activities, allowing students to see lab techniques and processes as many times as they need, helping them become more independent in the laboratory. So, with basic principles already covered, teaching staff had more time to enhance the learning experience, and as a result, student grades improved.

Successful implementation and regular use of these resources helped students complete hands-on practicals in shorter times. In the new academic year, under reduced capacity protocols due to COVID-19, this could enable more practicals to be completed in one day, supporting the most effective use of laboratory resources.

Professor Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi
“Having more time to spend on the actual practicals showed a great improvement in the marks achieved by students as well. The positive interactions with the students demonstrated that they had engaged well with the online resources.”
Prof. Gavin Maneveldt
Professor Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi
“The virtual labs have helped supplement the ‘real’ laboratory practicals in chemistry. Students who have done the simulations have been calmer, more confident, and even more independent - even though they’re first-year students. And we’ve seen a lot fewer breakages as well!”
Prof. Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi

Giving life to courses during the pandemic

When undergraduate laboratories were closed at the start of South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown, CIECT were pivotal in assisting lecturers in integrating the LabSims into their teaching modules, enabling them to effectively align the resources to a specific topic discussion forum and assessment. The development of remote learning options played a vital role in keeping students engaged with practical lab techniques.

“For us, this is a real game-changer for practical undergraduate laboratory science at UWC, and it’s only going to keep changing from here.”
Prof. Mike Davies-Coleman