LearnSci resources enable students to practise valuable workplace skills

Dawn Bradley
April 14, 2022

Ensuring students are ready to join the increasingly diverse workplace upon graduation means universities must provide opportunities within their courses for students to develop key skills. In 2017, the UK Government introduced universities to the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) “as a way of… better meeting the needs of employers, business, industry and the professions” (page 7). To meet the terms of the TEF, universities need their courses to prepare students for the challenges of their careers, to prove that students are able to compete for graduate level jobs that require them to have “knowledge, skills and attributes that are valued by employers and that enhance their personal and/or professional lives” (page 26).

We can help our partners with this; our resources allow students to practise the key skills that are highly sought after by employers in the science industry and therefore increase their employability. In this article we focus on five skills that students at our partner universities develop through the use of LabSims and Smart Worksheets: problem solving, analysis and interpretation, communication, research, and organisation.

1. Problem solving 

All graduates require problem solving skills in the workplace and the ability to think critically in order to analyse facts, evidence, data, observations and arguments, in order to form a judgement or find a solution. Some graduate careers revolve around finding solutions, for example scientific research. AstraZeneca PLC lists problem solving as one of the key competencies they look for in applicants, and problem solving features in all three of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)’s subject benchmarks for biosciences, chemistry and engineering. 

How do we help? 

Both our LabSims and Smart Worksheets are able to be used as active learning resources which encourage students to explore and solve problems. For example, in 2020, London Metropolitan University wanted to develop students’ core skill of problem solving, as well as their ability to process data. The basics of spectroscopic techniques were taught in lectures;  students then used our LabSims to gain a firm understanding before the lab session, and a Smart Worksheet to work through analysing the structure of an unknown compound once in the lab. This dynamic visualisation allowed for a more creative understanding of concepts to help find solutions to problems.

"This immersive process between theory and practical develops core skills in problem solving, processing data, and operative learning."
Dr Bhaven Patel, Senior Lecturer in Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, London Metropolitan University

2. Data analysis and interpretation 

The ability to critically analyse information and data, including statistics analysis, is hugely important for science graduates. The Science Industry Partnership’s Life Sciences 2030 Skills Strategy states that “there is … a need to understand the sector’s overarching skills needs, such as ... the all-pervasive need for ... analytic skills” (page 26) and “[t]he sector needs to gear-up the workforce’s data analytic skills as these pervasive skills are required in R&D, manufacturing, service & supply, and customer/patient interaction” (page 16). 

How do we help? 

We have nearly 40 Smart Worksheets in our collection that specifically provide for the development of students’ data analysis skills, covering topics such as Beer-Lambert, Kinetics, pH and Buffers, Pharmacology, Titrations and Yield.

A screen shot of Kinetics: Calculate Second Order Rate Constants Smart Worksheet.
Kinetics: Calculate Second Order Rate Constant Smart Worksheet

In addition to this, the feedback provided on students’ work within Smart Worksheets is immediate and enables an increase in students’ awareness of transcription error, use of correct units and scientific notation, allowing academics the time to focus on higher cognitive skills such as data interpretation. 

A screenshot of Titrations Acid Base Titration (Single Step) Smart Worksheet
Instant, specific feedback being delivered after an incorrect answer is submitted on the Titrations Acid Base Titration (Single Step) Smart Worksheet.

3. Communication

Communication is another of AstraZeneca’s key competencies, and the Royal Society of Chemistry also says, “This is an incredibly valuable skill in just about any type of work … through written and spoken word when writing reports or technical papers or giving presentations… Being able to clearly explain and adapt how and what you say with audiences and teams of different abilities and knowledge is an important skill.”

How do we help? 

The University of South Wales (USW) has formed a standing partnership with Northwest Normal University (NWNU) in China, where Chinese students study three years at NWNU before progressing to the final year of the BSc Medicinal and Biological Chemistry at USW. Due to the pandemic, staff from USW were unable to travel to China to deliver teaching content. 

Through the use of our LabSims and Smart Worksheets via our Direct access platform, the partnership has instead been able to provide both synchronous distance learning and asynchronous activities to reinforce key concepts. The platform has enabled USW to live stream interactive content, provide a facility for further learning to enhance the overall student experience, and enable the Chinese students to further integrate their learning of academic and scientific English, consolidating their theoretical chemistry knowledge into biological problems. Using LearnSci resources in partnership across continents therefore provides increased collaborative and employment prospects to students via the practice of academic and scientific English, and helps attract talent from around the world to the English-speaking science industry.

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4. Research 

Graduates need to prove they are independent thinkers through identifying and conducting their own investigations, and that they can show creativity and innovation in their work. Research skills training and lab practice are particularly integral to postgraduate training programmes, normally involving witnessing in-person demonstrations of how to operate specialist equipment and perform techniques. 

How do we help?

Our resources are suitable not only for undergraduates at all stages, but for postgraduate research students too. For the University of Nottingham, most research training could not be provided in-person during the pandemic, taking a serious toll on the motivation and mental health of postgraduate research students. Students felt unable to conduct investigations if they did not have confidence in using the relevant equipment.

The School of Pharmacy developed two learning resources using LearnSci LabSims, to help students prepare for the lab and understand key concepts. In the first nine months of implementation, 900 LearnSci activities were undertaken, among a community of 179 PGRs. Students feel that these digital resources have been critical in supporting their training and lab practice.

5. Organisation and planning

This skill is listed by the Royal Society of Biology as one of the top skills employers look for, and the Royal Society of Chemistry suggests that graduates are able to demonstrate it through the planning and executing of experiments they have conducted during their degree. The designing and planning of experiments also illustrates a graduate’s ability to identify and create their own learning opportunities, and identifies them as someone who is curious and has a continuous learning mindset.

How do we help with this?

We have created over a dozen Bioscience and Chemistry LabSims that allow students to design and plan experiments, across topics that include Cloning, Ecology, Electrophoresis, Enzyme Kinetics, Genetics, PCR and Calorimetry and Enthalpy Change. For example:

  • In Ecology Fieldwork: Methods and Approaches, students are introduced to different sampling methods and use the information learned to decide the best method and approach for a number of different ecological investigations. 
  • In Cloning and Expression Plasmids, students must complete two activities and view an animation before being asked to design suitable cloning and expression plasmids for two experiments.
  • In Calorimeter for Measuring Enthalpy Change of Neutralization, the students’ goal is to practise optimising an experiment to measure the temperature change when an acid and a base are mixed.
Two LabSims demonstrate skill development in experimental planning - Calorimeter for Measuring Enthalpy Change of Neutralization (left) and Cloning and Expression Plasmids (right)
Two LabSims demonstrate skill development in experimental planning - Calorimeter for Measuring Enthalpy Change of Neutralization (left) and Cloning and Expression Plasmids (right)

Coventry University’s School of Life Sciences have used several of our LabSims, including Cloning and Expression Plasmids, as a set of pre-lab activities to boost students’ confidence in practical laboratory work, equipment and techniques, an area identified as needing improvement. The following are results from a survey of 25 second-year bioscience students.

Through Teaching Innovation Award applications, case studies and feedback that we receive, we know that we are supporting students in developing these vital key skills needed for the workplace. To find out more about how we can support your students in the development of these and other valuable workplace skills, please get in touch by emailing us.