Biology, Computer Science Students Join Forces on Simulated Lab Experiment

by Janelle Hill | Oct 20, 2016



A screen shot of the 3-D simulated laboratory experiment created by DeSales students. 

A recent collaboration that brought together biology and mathematics/computer science students at DeSales University could one day be used in classrooms across the country and around the world.

Back in 2010-2011, Lara Goudsouzian, assistant professor at DeSales, teamed up with Michelle Mondoux, of The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, to develop a cell biology laboratory exercise. Students worked in groups to measure the growth rate and morphology of two different Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or Brewer’s Yeast, strains.

For the next few years, Goudsouzian and Mondoux ran the lab independently at each school. Then, they took it a step further. “Last year, she contacted me and we were talking about the lab and some of its limitations and strengths, ” Goudsouzian says. That’s when they started kicking around the idea of a simulation. “We’ve run the lab for so many years but we both felt that it could use a little pizzazz,” says Goudsouzian.

She approached the mathematics/computer science department at DeSales to design 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional simulations of the lab. Patricia Riola, assistant professor and director of the Masters of Science in Information Systems (MSIS) Program, jumped at the idea. She assigned the simulation as part of her class’s senior seminar project.

Goudsouzian had a formal meeting with CS students to explain the basics of yeast biology and what she would need. The students were then divided into two teams, with each team focusing on one simulation. They were able to tour the biology lab and, with guidance from Riola, Instructor Karen Ruggles, and Assistant Professor Pranshu Gupta, develop their simulations.

Then, came the testing. The CS students tried out their simulations in biology classrooms, while Goudsouzian and her students provided feedback. “It was fantastic,” says Riola. “They rose to the occasion; I was just so proud of them. We had our project leaders and developers come in their free time and help. It was a rich experience for both sides. “

Angeline Lonardi, a senior biology major, was impressed with the simulation and how it eliminated certain time constraints. “The simulation turned a multi-hour experiment into an exercise that can be completed in one sitting,” she says. “The students are still able to grasp the major experimental concepts without the need to return to the lab every two hours.”

At Holy Cross, the lab portion of cell biology is optional, so not all students get to take part in a live demonstration of the concepts they’re learning in class. That’s what made the collaboration all the more special for Mondoux. “For these students, having the computer simulation that the DeSales students designed was a great way to help them visualize the lecture concepts and get a sense of the experiments that their classmates were doing in the lab.”

Goudsouzian, Riola, and Mondoux all say the project was well received. Assessments performed at both DeSales and Holy Cross showed students had significant gains in learning, both in the traditional and simulated labs. Here at DeSales, not only did students from two different disciplines work together, they learned how to problem solve and think outside the box. “One group was learning from the other,” says Goudsouzian. “As faculty, we kind of hung back and enjoyed the interaction.” Adds Riola, “it's broadened their perspective.”

Goudsouzian, along with Gupta and Ruggles, presented the simulations at the LVAIC Digital Tools for Teaching and Learning Workshop. She’s also working on publishing the labs and making them available to the world. “Our hope is not only will our DeSales and Holy Cross students continue to use them, but anyone across the planet can use them if they want to.”

Goudsouzian has also joined forces with a professor at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts on an E. coli lab series. Students at each school spend five weeks looking for genes that affect the expression of E. coli stress response. "What they're doing is a legitimate real-world experience," Goudsouzian says. That real-world experience could end up getting students published.

Riola is currently collaborating with Syracuse University on a security sandbox, whereby undergraduate and graduate students at DeSales get to simulate security hacks on the Syracuse server. “These days, computers are everywhere,” she says. “The more collaboration and cross matrix work we can do, the better it will be for everybody.”

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