UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

John Garratt, Doug Clow, Anne Hodgson and Jane Tomlinson Department of Chemistry
University of York
Heslington, YORK
United Kingdom YO1 5DD

Other members of the eLABorate Consortium are:
Andrew Booth, Department of Biochemistry, University of Leeds
David Harris, Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford
David Povey, Department of Chemistry, University of Surrey.

The eLABorate Project

John Garratt , Doug Clow, Anne Hodgson and Jane Tomlinson


Our interest in simulations arose through the perceived limitations of laboratory work as normally carried out during undergraduate courses. Laboratory work is a fundamental component of university science courses; it provides the opportunity to develop the technical skills and confidence needed to use a wide range of equipment, apparatus and reagents. However, constraints of time, cost, and safety result in most laboratory work being carried out according to carefully defined instructions (we refer to this as `recipe laboratories'). The limitations of the recipe approach have been long recognised1 and are discussed further under The educational value of virtual investigations. Because the students are not required to make judgements about procedures, they frequently follow the instructions without thought. This failure to engage intellectually with their laboratory work is understandable because the practical problems they face are sufficient to fill their working memory, leaving no capacity to think more deeply about what they are doing2.

Partly because of the perceived limitations of recipe laboratories, project work is widely seen as playing an important part in science degree courses. It is regarded as providing an important introduction to the real world of science3.

Our reason for designing simulations was our belief that some of the experiences pertaining to the real world of science could be introduced through their use, and that some of the limitations of (comparatively short) projects could be avoided.

The eLABorate principle

eLABorate simulations are designed to add a new dimension to laboratory work in chemistry and biochemistry by providing students with the opportunity to carry out virtual investigations. A virtual investigation is based on a computer-model of the system to be investigated; the student is given control over those parameters normally controlled by the investigator and is required to plan an investigation with a clearly specified objective. Good decisions lead to observations or to the acquisition of data which are interpretable; poor choices can lead to unintelligible results. Using our programs, students can collect in a few hours results of a quantity and a quality which it would take days, weeks, or even months for a competent experimentalist to obtain in a laboratory. In this way, virtual investigations can provide greatly accelerated experience of experimental design. Without the use of simulations, this experience, which is of crucial importance to the professional scientist, is usually restricted to final year project work.

Our programs are designed to be used in different ways, to fit in with course requirements. Their use therefore places demands on the tutor as well as on the student; students cannot be expected to benefit from a laboratory course unless they are given training in laboratory technique, guidance on the objectives of the laboratory exercise or experiment, and information on how the objectives can be achieved; in the same way, considerable tutorial input is required if students are to obtain maximum benefit from our software. Accordingly, the software forms the core of an integrated eLABorate package which consists of:

  • student documentation (including tutor-supported pre-work);

  • the computer software; and

  • tutor documentation (including suggestions for embedding the package into a course and for providing feedback).

The educational value of virtual investigations

Simulations cannot be a substitute for the laboratory work through which students learn and gain confidence in their laboratory technique. However, constraints of cost, time and safety impose four fundamental shortcomings on traditional laboratory work:

  • most practicals require adherence to fixed protocols; this is a useful strategy for maximising the likelihood of obtaining interpretable results and this helps students to develop confidence; but recipe labs provide no training in experimental design;

  • all students doing the same experiment generally work towards the same, expected, results; the practical becomes an exercise rather than an experiment and, at worst, there may be collusion in reaching the expected answer; this encourages the view that in science there is always a single correct and expected answer;

  • even though the protocol is carefully defined, technical inexperience can lead to the obtaining of results which are unsuitable for rational analysis, but time and expense mean that it is rarely possible for a student to repeat work;

  • some research techniques cannot be taught at all because the apparatus or the reagents are too expensive or too dangerous for class use.

Computer simulations can, at least in some respects, overcome these limitations.

Simulations have the further advantage that students do not need to use up their short-term memory with details such as the location of apparatus and chemicals, or the technical skills needed to obtain high quality results. This enables them to concentrate on the task of applying their knowledge so as to plan an effective investigation.

Virtual investigations based on simulations can play various roles in the student learning experience. For example, they can be an effective way of:

  • preparing students for recipe labs, by providing them with an opportunity to explore the consequences of varying the recipe;

  • providing students with the opportunity to explore theory by allowing them to study unreal situations (for example, in the laboratory there is a limit to the values of a standard redox potential of a redox couple, but no such limit exists for a computer);

  • providing students with the opportunity to manipulate the controls of expensive equipment;

  • allowing students to design their own investigations, even when it would take months to collect data from real investigations; the process involves planning data collection, carrying out data interpretation, and presenting conclusions.

The package design

User interaction
When using an eLABorate program, the user interacts with the computer by making a judgement rather than by aiming for a single correct response. Ideally the computer will accept and act on this judgement, however good or bad it may be; this reflects the real situation of an independent scientist who decides how to carry out an experiment, and may make a good or bad decision. However, we try to incorporate into our programs a set of criteria for assessing if a bad decision has been made. An example might be that a good estimate of the Km of an enzyme cannot be obtained unless the rate of reaction is measured at values of substrate concentration which straddle the actual Km. Criteria such as these allow the computer to provide rapid feedback for the user. Thus the computer does not prevent the making of bad decisions, but rather attempts to provide worthwhile and helpful comments on the quality of the decisions, at appropriate stages.

This kind of interaction between computer and user requires the user to engage in deep thought. This is one reason why these packages cannot be used in isolation of tutorial support.

User interface
The user interface is designed for ease of use, and not for maximum visual impact4. Animations are used to demonstrate laboratory procedures, only when these are likely to make it easier for the user to understand the nature of the process being simulated.

Flexibility of use
Each package is designed to be used in a variety of ways so that the tutor can tailor its use to individual course requirements. In some cases the data are generated in a Dynamic Link Library (DLL) written in C/C++ but are presented to the user through a ToolBook interface. This means that any tutor with access to an authoring copy of ToolBook can redesign the interface and thus change the context of the investigation to fit the requirements of an individual course. Other programs themselves provide different options from which the tutor can select the most appropriate and limit student access to this one. The minimum level of flexibility is provided by the tutor having control over the set pre-work and objectives.

Providing feedback
Simulations allow students to collect a huge amount of information in a short time. Tutors will often wish to provide feedback on the quality of the results and the design of the investigation. The danger of creating a huge marking load can be avoided by requiring students to select and process the data in the same way that research scientists do when reporting research results.

eLABorate packages

The following eLABorate packages will shortly be available:

enzymeLAB: an investigation of the kinetic characteristics (e.g. V max, Km and pH dependence) of an enzyme which obeys Michaelis-Menten kinetics; (York)

statsLAB: an empirical investigation of the characteristics of simple statistical procedures (using sample data to define a normal population or the constant terms in a relationship); (York)

proteinLAB: an investigation of procedures used to isolate proteins; devising a strategy for the purification of a protein; (Leeds)

tracerLAB: a study of the incorporation of radio-labelled amino acid and nucleotide into protein and nucleic acid during normal bacterial growth, and after inhibition of protein by synthesis or nucleic acid synthesis; (York)

electrochemLAB: an investigation of the basic principles of equilibrium electrochemistry; (York)

nmrLAB: the use of a Fourier-Transform NMR spectrometer to obtain an interpretable spectrum; (York)

riaLAB: setting up and using a radio-immuno assay to determine the concentration of an antigen; (Oxford)

elisaLAB: setting up and using an enzyme linked sorption assay (elisa); (Oxford)

bindingLAB: allows students to investigate the characteristics of protein-ligand binding by the simulation of binding experiments; (Leeds)

cisLAB: a database of spectral, 2-d and 3-d structural and physico chemical information accessible via a simple user interface. (Surrey)

Technical information about eLABorate

eLABorate is funded under the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme. This programme was funded by the University Funding Councils of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The total funding provided to eLABorate, over a three year period, is about 290,000 pounds sterling. Most of this is used to support a program designer in each of four universities which make up the consortium - York (the lead institution), Leeds, Oxford and Surrey.

All programs are written for PCs running Windows. There are no plans to translate them for use on a MAC platform. The minimum platform is a 486SX with 4 Mb RAM and a 640 x 480 256 colour display.

Under the terms of the project, we are required to provide the packages to any UK university department for a nominal price to cover the dissemination costs. After October 1997 copies will be available to non-UK institutions from BIDS.

For further information see our Web page or e.mail to


  1. J.A. Young. Teaching the scientific method in college general chemistry. J.Chem.Ed. 34 238-239 1957

  2. A.H. Johnstone. Chemical education research: facts, findings and consequences. Chem Soc Reviews 9 365-390 1980

  3. J. Ryder, J. Leach, and R. Driver. Final year projects in undergraduate science courses. Undergraduate Learning in Science Project, Working Paper no 1, March 1996

  4. J. Tomlinson, D. Clow, J. Garratt, A. Hodgson. Software Reviews 13 8-10 1996

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UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

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