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A Digital Laboratory Manual for Undergraduate Biology

By Stephen Gallik
Traditionally, biology instructors have depended on conventional laboratory manuals or handouts for dissemination of the protocols, background information, diagrams, and photographs required to guide students through bench-top exercises in the teaching laboratory. More and more, however, instructors are using the Web as an alternative or supplemental source of instructions and resources for the teaching lab.

Within the confines of the typical undergraduate natural sciences teaching laboratory, computers are most often used as components of analytical equipment that control the equipment and collect data. As extensions of the teaching laboratory, computers are also often used by students away from the lab bench as personal tools to analyze data and prepare laboratory reports. And more and more, computers are being used to access online information that can be used to supplement the laboratory manual. Too often, however, the various pieces of software or sources of online information used in these situations are operationally disconnected from the actual principal laboratory manual that is used to guide students’ basic laboratory work.

The Digital Laboratory Manual
During the past several years, I have worked on the development and implementation of a complete, fully interactive educational tool called a digital laboratory manual (DLM). A DLM is an online, interactive textbook designed to incorporate all aspects of a specific set of laboratory exercises into one resource to be used at the lab bench. A DLM not only guides students through experiments in the laboratory, but also offers a complete package of all the informational and analytical tools necessary to complete experiments at the lab bench.
Most of my work in this area has focused on the development of a DLM for histology (a study of animal tissue structure), a course that is required for first-year medical students, first-year veterinary medical students, and first-year dentistry students, and is frequently offered as an upper-level course in undergraduate biology programs. The DLM I have produced has gone through three generations of development.
The first generation was a standard client-based Windows7 application distributed via CD-ROM. The second was a Windows7 application that contained a customized browser, built from Microsoft Corp.’s WebBrowser Technology and hard-coded exclusively to access the highly scripted pages of the manual over the Internet. The third, and current, generation of the DLM is a public online resource designed to work best with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Version 5.0 or higher.

More than Simulation
The purpose of this manual is not to serve as a simulation; the intent is not to replace the microscope, but to have the DLM serve as a genuine laboratory manual to guide students through the microscopic study of tissues. The development of the manual is based on the premise that histology not only involves identification, but also requires the ability to examine a specimen under the microscope, understand the quality of the specimen, and know how to navigate about the specimen in order to evaluate it.
The DLM consists of fifteen chapters that guide the student through the microscopic study of all major tissues and organs of the mammalian body. It includes a library of more than 200 different tissue images, all original to the manual. Although many fine digital teaching tools for histology have been developed, and several offer online histology references, I believe this DLM to be the first of its kind.
The manual has four features that, when combined, make it unique. First, each chapter contains a comprehensive text that systematically guides students through the microscopic study of mammalian and human tissues. Second, fully labeled images, taken at the four magnifications commonly available on student microscopes, accompany the text. Third, each chapter contains background information that introduces each organ. And finally, all of this is brought to the student online.

Implementation Considerations
I have used the DLM as the sole laboratory manual in my histology course at Mary Washington College over the past two years. Implementation presented two obvious considerations. First, each student station in the undergraduate laboratory needed to be wired for Internet connectivity. Fortunately, the new Jepson Science Center at Mary Washington College is wired in this way. Second, each student needs a computer. Because students are not required to bring laptop computers to campus, it was necessary that the lab be equipped with a computer for each student. Because of this second requirement, a single lab section of the course was limited to 12 students.
The DLM was delivered via the campus high-speed intranet. Therefore, use of the manual in class did not depend on general Web traffic or on the functioning of Internet routers. The pages of the manual were dependably present on demand. However, use of the manual off-campus was another issue. The DLM was designed for use in an academic setting with its typical high-speed Internet connection. Although the manual can be used in any setting connected to the Internet, its high-content pages will likely take a very long time to load via standard lower-speed residential connections. We have estimated that download time with a typical residential dial-up modem would range between 30 seconds to 5 minutes, depending on the page.

DLM Effectiveness
As a teaching tool, the DLM seemed to do its job well. We found that students were able to cover and comprehend the material more efficiently using the manual than in the previous years without the DLM. In fact, they were able to cover and comprehend what was traditionally an entire laboratory session in about half the time. This being the case, instructors using the manual should be able to incorporate more activities into a routine lab period, getting more out of the session. A formal survey of the students from courses in 2000, 2001, and 2002 backs up these findings. And all students surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that similar manuals for other biology courses, such as anatomy, zoology, and botany, would be valuable.

Stephen Gallik, Ph.D., ([email protected]) is an associate professor of biology at Mary Washington College. Histology: The Digital Laboratory Manual is available for use online at

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