Remote-Controlled Microscopes Bring Complex Biology Education to Students Worldwide – University of California, Santa Cruz | Team Cansler

In many communities around the world, students’ ability and enthusiasm to pursue STEM subjects in their high school and college careers is limited by a lack of resources that prevents them from engaging with their peers in complex, project-based curriculums access. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these existing educational inequalities and requires new solutions to democratize access to this field.

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz have developed a way to use remote-controlled, internet-connected microscopes to enable students around the world to participate in the design and execution of biology experiments.

A new study in the journal helioon describes this novel and scalable framework to bring project-based STEM education to students who would otherwise not have access. The researchers implemented the microscope technology in the biology classrooms of several Latinx communities in the United States and Latin America and found that their technology worked an effective and scalable approach to empowering students who are underrepresented in STEM to conduct complex experiments remotely.

“Taking an internet-connected camera and sticking it in the field of view of a microscope is something a lot of labs could do,” said Pierre Baudin, a PhD in computer science. Student at the Baskin School of Engineering and first author of the article. “By setting the framework in this paper, the idea was to create a roadmap so that any lab that feels some kind of mission or desire to create educational resources for their community or others can be able to create a similar type of set up an experiment and enable this concept to spread.”

Tissue culture experiments are typically unheard of in high school and even the early years of college, yet in user studies conducted for this research, underserved high school students at Alisal High School in rural Salinas Valley near Santa Cruz were able to do these experiments execute .

“We enable students to do experiments that are normally not possible [many] Schools around the world, either because the materials are hazardous or because the equipment is expensive or requires special training for both teachers and students,” said Mohammed Mostajo-Radji, the lead researcher on this study.

development of the new method

While project-based learning has proven to be an effective method of teaching STEM concepts, it is constrained by barriers such as the cost and logistics of shipping materials to isolated communities, limited teacher training, underfunded schools, and potential exposure to hazardous materials. Through his years of experience working with educational nonprofits, Mostajo-Radji of the UCSC Genomics Institute found that a successful solution must be scalable and affordable, adaptable to a school’s local context, and allow students to fully explore the scientific method to explore.

Mostajo-Radji and many other researchers at the UCSC Genomics Institute involved in this project believe that conducting complex biological experiments via remote-controlled microscopes can be a solution that meets these criteria.

The technology powering these remote experiments was originally developed to allow researchers from multiple geographically separated institutions to collaborate on stem cell research as part of a multi-institutional group called the brainstorms. PhD students Baudin and Victoria Ly developed the tool to remotely control microscopes from anywhere in the world to enable non-invasive observation of cell cultures in incubators.

Mostajo-Radji, formerly the Bolivian Ambassador for Science, Technology and Innovation, recognized microscopy technology could be used for distance education amid growing education gaps during the pandemic.

“[The remote-controlled microscopes] were not developed for the purpose of education,” said Mostajo-Radji. “What we did was take a lot of the lessons we learned from my community service and others’ to create something that is quite remarkable.”

Mostajo-Radji believes this paper is the first to describe a method that is both truly distanced and makes full use of the scientific method, bringing inquiry and active learning to the classroom, which can be especially important for students who are less learn by heart.

Learn from students worldwide

The paper outlines a framework for other labs and classrooms to conduct remote experiments, in which students design an experiment, make observations, analyze data, and present their findings.

Researchers learned from multiple user studies using this method locally with Advanced Placement Biology students at Alisal High School in Salinas and abroad with students from two different universities in Bolivia and multinational students involved in the non-profit organization Science Clubs International. was used. The experiments were conducted in Santa Cruz and San Francisco and were accessed entirely remotely by the students. Each group’s instruction reflected the student’s local context and complemented an already existing curriculum.

The first pilot of the program began in fall 2020 at the height of the pandemic. The programs varied between the different groups and usually lasted about eight weeks. The researchers met with some groups of students weekly for lessons, with other groups they initially gave instructions on how to use the technology and let them carry out the experiments independently.

One experiment conducted with students at Salinas was a “clinical study in a dish” that allowed students to see the effect of novel drugs on neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor, in cell lines. In other experiments, the students investigated the biocompatibility of custom-designed gold and graphene nanoparticles

Surveys conducted at the end of user study programs showed that this method positively impacted STEM identity in both cohorts, albeit more so in Bolivian students, and resulted in an overall increased interest in STEM among participating students. These results provided an opportunity to understand STEM motivation among Latinx populations without having to extrapolate conclusions from a geographically limited study.

“For many of these educational strategies and policies [researchers] I like to think that a study done in a certain region of the world is representative to inform politics in another part of the world,” Mostajo-Radji said. “Here, for the first time, we thoroughly compare groups of Hispanics [in California] and Hispanics abroad, in the context of the very same class, the very same lesson, and the very same experiments.”

extension of the program

The team is now in the process of applying for grants to build the infrastructure to scale up this work. They envision an app that would allow high school and community college students from anywhere in the world who might not otherwise go into research to design and conduct experiments entirely remotely. The researchers recently created the Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab expand the use of their technology.

Ideally, they would have hundreds of microscopes running different experiments. Mostajo-Radji envisions students from different parts of the world being in the same group and learning together from the same data.

Researchers are actively seeking additional partners through conferences to build relationships beyond the schools they worked with for this study. To that end, Mostajo-Radji was recently invited to join the US National Academy of Sciences at the International Frontiers Symposium in Nairobi, Kenya, to share this idea and build educational partnerships to bring these technologies to more students.

Researchers are also interested in going beyond microscopy. Areas of interest include devices for teaching programming through microfluidics and techniques for teaching electrophysiology, the study of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues, to non-visual learners.

“The microscopy was a kind of low-hanging fruit,” Mostajo-Radji said. “That’s just the beginning.”

UCSC students Raina Sacksteder, Atesh Worthington, Kateryna Voitiuk, and Victoria Ly all made significant contributions to this study. This work was supported by the Schmidt Futures Initiative and the National Science Foundation.

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