Let there be light! Online platform lets students do science in real time

The internet is a wonder of the modern world. From a quiet café in Berlin one can explore the bustling streets of Shenzhen, China, the seemingly desolate Australian Outback, and the depths of the Mariana Trench — all while chatting with countless connected people in between. Now, a new prototype project from researchers at Stanford University may bring the beauty of real-time science to students around the world over the web.

“A user can push a button, turn on a light, and see a cell responding.”

Dubbed the Biology Cloud Lab, the interactive platform is designed to engage scientists of all ages by letting them remotely control LEDs around communities of light-responsive cells. Although the single-celled organisms (Euglena) depend on light to make energy, they retreat when the light source is too strong. By manipulating the light’s direction and intensity, users can watch the Euglena react in real time and, later, hypothesize about the cells’ behavior.

“Classic microscopy is just passive observation,” Stanford assistant professor of bioengineering and co-lead of the project, Ingmar H. Riedel-Kruse, told Digital Trends. “The Cloud Lab is interactive, i.e. a user can push a button, turn on a light, and see a cell responding. That is a paradigm change, which enables a totally new type of firsthand experience.”

The Biology Cloud Lab has the potential to offer science students a more authentic science experience than today’s massive open online courses (MOOCs), according Riedel-Kruse and Stanford assistant professor of education Paulo Bilkstein, who also leads the project. The lab allows users to perform both controlled and relatively freeform experiments in real time. They can review, analyze, and interpret quantitative data, and export the data to run through simulated models. And to test their results, students and teachers can compare their data to data gathered by professional scientists. “These capabilities make it integrated,” Bilkstein said.

But all these capabilities come at a cost. For one, the researchers had to figure out how to keep the cells stable and responsive in the long term, which they did by developing the systems to automatically monitor themselves and occasionally self-correct for errors so that a properly functioning setup was always available. They also had to keep financial costs down. With the current prototype scaled up, the researchers aim for — and expect — operating costs of less than one cent per experiment.

“Students are enabled to do key components of scientific inquiry that are challenging to deliver.”

In a paper published earlier this month in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers described trials with both Stanford students in a college-level biophysics class and middle schoolers.

“Students were excited and motivated,” said Riedel-Kruse. “Students are enabled to do key components of scientific inquiry that are challenging to deliver, certainly in an online setting. This paper really shows that it can be done from a technical and educational level. Now we want to build on it — integrate the components better and test it with more students and teachers to disseminate it more widely.”

The current prototype deals exclusively with a specific biology experiment but the researchers think tweaks can offer all sorts of scientific experiments. “We plan on other platforms in the future,” said Riedel-Kruse. And he invites others to adopt the approach.

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