“There’s no Planet B” - but innovatively using digital technology can help us protect the one we have

Dawn Bradley
August 19, 2022

The benefits of using high-quality, effective digital technology in education are well-established. Through the use of virtual labs for example, learners are engaged, feedback is targeted and instant, and students have much greater flexibility in deciding the time and place of their learning. 

However, it’s growing increasingly important to look beyond these benefits and realise how important digital technology is for other reasons too. 

Firstly, although labs are the place where new, often life-saving science takes place, they do come at an environmental cost. 

  • They will consume three to ten times more energy per square metre than other academic spaces…
  • …and three times more water per square metre.
  • It’s also estimated that labs are responsible for around 2% of global plastic waste.

Teaching labs will be making a contribution to this consumption. What role can digital technology play in helping to combat global problems, such as the climate crisis, that are being exacerbated to a certain degree by a university’s lab usage?

Alongside this, technology continues to evolve and at a rapid pace. Many students and young people are keen to take agency in addressing large-scale problems. Educators need to make sure their students aren’t left behind with the progress being made in technology, but are aware of what is out there, and have the confidence and knowledge to embrace it. 

At LearnSci, we are committed to playing our part in helping to protect the environment and not exacerbate the worsening climate crisis. In this article, we first shine a light on two ways LearnSci’s LabSims, while never aiming to replace in-person labs, can assist in reducing a university lab’s energy usage and waste, helping transition them to a more sustainable working environment. Then we’ll highlight the work of one of our partners, who has already been supporting its pharmacy students to explore innovative digital technological solutions for health concerns.

Unlimited opportunities to repeat and learn 

When students practise experiments virtually, with no limits on the number of opportunities they have and with reduced fear of failure, they can work on a skill until they know they can do it. When they then reach the lab, they can apply their learning, leading to more lab confidence, fewer breakages and damages, and less waste. 

We have over 150 LabSims covering more than 50 topics within the chemical and biosciences. From centrifuges to chromatography, microbiology to microscopy, students have multiple opportunities to practise, repeat and apply knowledge in a meaningful way. Personalised feedback provides enhanced support, helping students proactively lead their own improvement. The statistics illustrating the impact of LabSims are clear. In a recent case study at the University of Glasgow, 90% of students felt prepared after using LabSims for pre-labs. 

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As our technology in pre-lab work leads to an increase in student confidence for in-person lab work, it also leads to a reduction in repetition through error. This is automatically going to lead to a more sustainable working environment. 

Stills from two interactives from our pre-lab bioscience resource package, showing how students can fail without fear of consequence or wastage, before carrying out the experiment using real equipment, leading to a more sustainable lab environment. 

Support with pre-lab experimental design

Science has become reliant on disposable and sterile equipment over recent decades. This has resulted in increased waste of lab plastics, much of which must be incinerated. 

Virtual pre-lab work leads to a more sustainable practice when students can practise designing, planning and executing their experiments in advance. Once students know how to virtually execute the experiment, they have learned how to make sure their equipment is correctly chosen, calibrated and used, saving materials and costs. Better support around experimental design leads to a better understanding of what the equipment actually does.

Our LabSims help students with this practice. Over a dozen have been created to specifically aid students in practising their experimental design skills, ranging from Calorimetry and Enthalpy Change in our Chemistry library, to Cloning in our Bioscience library. 

Stills from our Basic Labware simulation, showing how students learn to identify between different pieces of labware and therefore choose the most appropriate for their experiments.  

Learn how to innovate through technology

We always love to see how our partners are supporting students in finding innovative digital technological solutions for problems. 

In 2021, inspired by the The Earthshot Prize, senior lecturer Nargis Gulzar from De Montfort University’s Leicester School of Pharmacy created a workshop for undergraduate students. She tasked them with identifying a local or global health concern, and devising an innovative solution using digital technology, not limited by a financial budget or practicalities. The workshop discussions emphasised the importance of embracing technology but to be  mindful that it does not worsen existing health inequalities through for example, lack of access or unconscious bias.

The workshop highlighted the creative ability of students if given the opportunity, but also a lack of awareness of the diverse technology currently used in pharmacy. Miss Gulzar aims to improve students’ knowledge of digital technology within the healthcare arena and its subsequent environmental impact by building on this pilot and strengthening collaborations with undergraduate and postgraduate educators. There is the potential for student learning to enhance patient outcomes by addressing local health needs, but like the Earthshot winners to also impact the global community as students identify more technology, its use and its applications.

Get in touch

To help your students develop the skills and confidence that come with using effective digital technology, or to share your innovative teaching practice with us, please get in touch or look out for our annual Teaching Innovation Awards. We’ll be delighted to hear from you.