Computers in the Biology Lab:

An Integrative Approach

Dierk Seeburg

Ph.D. candidate, Department of Botany
Center for the Study of Early Events in Photosynthesis
Arizona State University

This manuscript describes the integration of information technology productivity tools in a biology laboratory environment. Using several examples of laboratory setups, the integration process, albeit sometimes not an easy one initially, is shown to be beneficial to the learning experience of students in life science classes. In particular, topics such as cybertesting, feedback mechanisms over the Internet, and molecular modeling in the classroom are explored and evaluated as to their efficiency for both teacher and student. Furthermore, the technologies used in the laboratory setting of life sciences classes are projected to be of considerable value in other science and liberal arts class settings given appropriate setup time and organized planning. Finally, the overall effectiveness is assessed subjectively from a personal point of view so that this study can serve as a starting point for similar endeavors.

My objective is to provide an overview of how information technology productivity tools can be used to enhance the classroom experience in a biology laboratory environment.


This project of incorporating computer technology into a lab setting started with the availability of a central computer, the Instructor Volumes, at the Department of Information Technology at Arizona State University. This computer provides space for documents and applications accessible through the campus-wide Apple Macintosh computer network. This intranet network is password-protected and allows editing of materials by one or several instructors simultaneously. Documents and applications deposited can be of any kind and copyright material can be copy-protected. The initial motivation behind the project was to provide a fast and easy way for students to access their grades and install some kind of feedback mechanism.

Two of the initial questions at the beginning of the project were: What factors determine the quality of a lab class? How can new technology be incorporated into a lab class most efficiently?


Following the notion that students' performances grow with increasing challenges, more materials and methods are added on the network and in other ways as they become available. Classwork outside the classroom complements work in class and keeps students' attention geared towards classwork. Thus, this setup makes up for the disadvantage of laboratory classes compared to other classes that are more suited for outside work and can be more easily adapted to integrating computers.

The difficulty of the project, however, lies in the fact that technology and computers are tools only and should not cloud the original purpose of individual interaction among students and between students and instructor. This is an item of concern especially in a laboratory setting.

Lastly, the use of technology and computers is expensive in terms of money, time, and energy and nerves. Thus, monitoring efficiency should be one of the underlying principles of a project like this, especially since it will be a work in progress.

Pedagogical Approach

At this stage, students are still unaware, unfamiliar, or sometimes unwilling to access available technology. This necessitates an active approach of taking the student by the virtual hand and simplifying all procedures involved in initial access to any of the sources mentioned.

The approach is useful not only for distance education, but also for both self-paced learning and studying.

Additionally, virtual material in a lab class should not substitute hands-on material, only enhance it to deepen the students' understanding.

Lastly, feedback for students aids in the self-assessment process which is often underestimated in the learning process.

Materials and Methods


The courses with integrated information technology tools are courses of a two-semester core class in biology for science majors, and microbiology for microbiology and related majors.


The average biological laboratory class has anywhere from 20 to 30 students in it and usually one teaching assistant. Wall space is used to display charts of biological organisms and processes. A screen is usually installed at the front wall for use in overhead projection and the like. A couple of blackboards are commonly found at the front and back wall. Side benches are often used to display models of biological organisms and parts thereof. The one technological device installed in many, but not all laboratories is an ethernet hookup for the campus intranet network and Internet connectivity.


The students are first, second, and third year students, with the majority of them being biology majors, and also a number of other sciences such as earth sciences, microbiology majors, and a few non-majors.

Technological Tools

The technological tools can be split into two categories: hardware and software, described as follows.


As mentioned above, a campus intranet network, set up as a LAN (Local Area Network), was used in the initial setup. Remote access was possible as soon as the Internet was included into the technology concept of the laboratory setting. Some of the technologies were made possible through an in-house LSVL (Life Science Visualization Laboratory) that provided technical consultation and hardware support. The same was also provided by the MIRF (Media Instruction Resource Facility), now aptly called IS (Instructional Support) contained in the CII (Consortium for Instructional Innovation) on the ASU campus. Among the hardware equipment used are an Elmo camera delivery system, a Proxima LCD projection system, a Cyclops projection presentation system, a SONY microscope video camera setup with video link, and a laser disk setup.


The software used must hold up against highest standards to ensure efficiency. It must have some engaging value and at the same time fulfill educational requirements.

The software can be divided into several categories as follows:

The use of a grading program on the Instructor Volumes allows students to access individual and class statistical data. Student grades are available earlier than the following class period. Soon students rely on the faster publication of their grades.

Another item published this way are the guidelines for writing laboratory reports as a supplement to handouts.

Lastly, a feedback mechanism is put in place where students were able to comment on anything in regard to the class anonymously.

Taken together, this may constitute an example of CAL (Computer-Aided Laboratory).


The overall result can be summarized by stating that it is a great learning experience for everybody involved. Not only are students learning, but instructors are learning as well. The endeavor is benefiting the author in more than one way and is certainly broadening my horizon.

The classes that have information technology tools incorporated in them include BIO181 in the spring of 1997, BIO181 in the fall of 1996, BIO182 in the spring of 1996, BIO182 in the fall of 1995, MIC206 in the spring of 1995, and BIO181 in the fall of 1994.

Success Stories

The underlying tone of comments from students is that self-paced learning is helpful for their time management in today's students' busy schedules.


As there are two sides to a coin there are obstacles implicit in the process of setting up a structure such as this. Foremost, rigid administrative structures impair reasonable advancement in teaching and in incorporation of new teaching technologies. This can be found anywhere and is, of course, not restricted to a university setting. An example is that Information Technology departments may offer little or no help to instructors wanting to offer computer resources in classes other than information technology classes.

Secondly, many students do not have prior computer-assisted instruction experience. Thus, they feel uncomfortable and unwilling to try the new technologies. Also, students expressed dismay over the unavailability of computers in campus computer labs. Currently, another hardship inevitable at larger school settings is limited dial-in computer access to graphical software for undergraduate students. Despite the advancement in information technology equipment in high schools, it cannot be expected that students have experience writing reports using computers.

Also, an information network of like-minded instructors who also incorporate information technology resources into classes is desperately needed. This would address concerns, questions, and problems and provide a forum for solutions.

Lastly, grading computer-assisted tests can be time-consuming, if little or no assistance by computer professionals is available.


One of the key lessons learned from the project is to reserve some class time for guiding students unfamiliar with computers through a computer lab and through the procedure of accessing class material. This will increase efficiency and effectiveness of the tools available. Although visualization of class materials broadens some students' horizons, but it can confuse others. Another point of concern is to make all class materials available to all students and not favor any group such as the group more comfortable accessing Internet information. The WWW should be used to its full potential; gopher technology is used for easy distribution of information. As gopher technology is phased out, the WWW can take over information distribution and implement interactive information exchange, testing, feedback, etc.

It is advisable to develop evaluation schemes that maximize on student output to substantiate funding requests. The other aspect of funding is to cut costs as much as possible for using this or similar applications of information technology. Whenever possible, have your department of information technology do as much work for you as possible.

In the long run, all the effort will end in a win-win situation: testing will become easier with efficient systems in place and the students' introduction to information technology tools gives them the competitive edge in the job market.

Lessons Learned

As with any project of this type, every journey begins with a first step. This project has an up and a downside: passive students open up more through interactive assignments, but active student-teacher interaction may be diminished.

The incorporation of technology tools should be included in teaching evaluations. Student progress and positive feedback is infectious as other teachers, be they teaching assistants or faculty, adopt new technologies into their teaching or at least stay current with technological standards. Having teaching evaluation activities include a concern for the use of technology may be one way of getting the attention of local and non-local funding agencies.

Keep in mind the adaptability of your approach for integrating disabled students. The department of information technology on your campus can be a valuable resource to you.

My personal summary

"If you build it, they will come." (39K .wav sound file)[1]


The latest impetus for the exploration of more and different technology came from Michael J. Farabee, Science Department at Estrella Mountain Community College. I would also like to acknowledge the Department of Technology at ASU for supplying hard- and software, Michael Long from the Department of Botany for technical support, as well as Ralph Backhaus for encouraging the Web page integration into the whole class, and James Morrison from the Horizon Project for his initiative and support in this project.


[1] From the movie "Field of dreams"

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