In many communities around the world, students’ ability and enthusiasm to study STEM in high school and college is limited by a lack of resources, preventing them from accessing a challenging project-based curriculum like their peers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in education, requiring new solutions to democratize access to this field.
Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz have developed a method to use remote-controlled, Internet-connected microscopes so that students from anywhere in the world can participate in the design and conduct of biological experiments.
A new study in the journal Helion details this new and scalable framework for delivering project-based STEM education to students who might not otherwise have access. The researchers implemented the microscope technology in the biology classrooms of several Hispanic communities in the United States and Latin America and found that their technology is an efficient and scalable approach that allows students underrepresented in STEM to conduct complex experiments remotely.
“Taking a camera with an Internet connection and putting it in the field of view of a microscope is something that many laboratories could do,” said Pierre Beaudin, Ph.D. in computer science. student at the Baskin School of Engineering and first author of the paper. “In laying out the framework in this paper, the idea was to create a road map so that any lab that felt a mission or desire to create educational resources for their community or others could set up a similar experiment, allowing the concept to spread.”
Tissue culture experiments are not typically found in high school or even freshman college, and yet in the user research conducted for this study, seniors at Alisal High School in the rural Salinas Valley near Santa Cruz were able to conduct these experiments.
“We allow students to conduct experiments that would not normally be possible [many] schools around the world, either because the materials are unsafe or because the equipment is expensive or requires special training for both teachers and students,” said Mohamed Mostaha-Raji, senior researcher on the study.
Development of a new method
Although project-based learning has proven effective for teaching STEM concepts, it is limited by barriers such as the cost and logistics of delivering materials to isolated communities, limited teacher training, under-resourced schools, and potential exposure to hazardous materials. With extensive experience working with educational nonprofits, the UCSC Genomics Institute Mostajo-Radji determined that a successful solution must be scalable and affordable, adapt to the local school context, and allow students to fully learn the scientific method.
Mostaho-Raji and many of the other UCSC Genomics Institute researchers involved in the project believe that performing complex biological experiments using remotely controlled microscopes may be a solution that meets these criteria.
The technology that powers these remote experiments was originally developed to enable researchers from several geographically separated institutions to collaborate on stem cell research as part of a multi-institution group called Braingeneers. Graduate students Baudin and Victoria Li have developed a tool to remotely control microscopes from anywhere in the world to provide non-invasive observation of cell cultures in incubators.
Mostaha-Raji, who was previously Bolivia’s ambassador for science, technology and innovation, acknowledged that microscopy technology could be used for distance education amid growing educational equity gaps during the pandemic.
“[The remote-controlled microscopes] weren’t designed for educational purposes,” Mostaha-Raji said. “What we did was take a lot of the lessons we learned from my work and other nonprofits to build something really great.”
Mostaha-Raji believes this paper is the first to describe a method that is both truly remote and fully utilizes the scientific method, bringing inquiry and active learning into lessons, which can be especially important for less oriented students for memorization.
Learn from students around the world
The paper outlines a framework for other labs and classrooms to conduct remotely controlled experiments in which students plan an experiment, make observations, analyze data, and present their findings.
The researchers learned from several user studies that used the method locally with Advanced Placement Biology students at Alisal High School in Salinas, as well as abroad with students from two different universities in Bolivia and multinational students participating in the non-profit organization Science Clubs International. Experiments were conducted in Santa Cruz and San Francisco, and students had full remote access to them. Each group’s lessons reflected the learner’s local context and complemented the existing curriculum.
The first pilot of the program began in the fall of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. The programs varied between groups and usually lasted about eight weeks. The researchers met weekly for lessons with some groups of students, and with other groups they first gave a tutorial on how to use the technology and allowed them to conduct experiments on their own.
One of the experiments conducted with students at Salinas was a “clinical trial in a dish” that allowed students to see the effects of new drugs on neuroblastoma, a cancer tumor, in cell lines. In other experiments, the students studied the biocompatibility of custom-made gold nanoparticles and graphene
Surveys conducted at the end of the user study programs showed that this method had a positive effect on STEM identity among both cohorts, although more strongly among Bolivian students, and led to an overall increase in STEM interest among participating students. These results provided an opportunity to understand STEM motivation among Latinos without extrapolating findings from one geographically limited study.
“For many of these educational strategies and policies, [researchers] We’d like to think that a study done in one region of the world is representative of how it informs policy in another part of the world,” Mastaha-Raji said. “Here, for the first time, we’re comparing Latino groups in a thorough way. [in California] and Latinos abroad, in the context of exactly the same classroom, exactly the same lesson, and exactly the same experiments.”
The team is now in the process of applying for grants to build the infrastructure to expand this work. They envision a program that would allow high school and college students from anywhere in the world who would otherwise not be involved in research to design and conduct experiments completely remotely. The researchers recently established the Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab to increase the use of their technology.
Ideally, they would have hundreds of microscopes running different experiments. Mostaha-Raji suggests that students from different parts of the world can be in the same group and learn together from the same data.
The researchers are actively seeking more partners through conferences to build relationships beyond the schools they worked with in this study. To that end, Mostajo-Raji was recently invited to join the US National Academy of Sciences at the International Frontiers Symposium in Nairobi, Kenya to share this idea and create educational partnerships to bring these technologies to more students.
Researchers are also interested in moving beyond microscopy. Areas of interest include devices for teaching microfluidics programming and methods for teaching electrophysiology, the study of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues, to visually impaired learners.
“Microscopy, in a sense, was the low-hanging fruit,” Mostaha-Raji said. – This is just the beginning.
UCSC graduate students Rayna Saxteder, Atesh Worthington, Ekaterina Wojciuk, and Victoria Lee contributed greatly to this research. This work was supported by the Schmidt Futures Initiative and the National Science Foundation.