Learn why Linda Scaife‘s International Baccalaureate (IB) students are exploring databanks and simulations to showcase their knowledge.

This is an article that is going to be an unexpected love letter to databanks…

Dear databanks and virtual simulations,

If you had not been there as a solution to students accessing scientific investigations during COVID times, our IB Biology students would have been all the poorer for it. Databanks, once, our students ran away from you and towards collecting their own data from school laboratory investigations. Now they realise that they can succeed – and succeed more easily – by using large sources of secondary source data because it enables them to analyse, explain the strengths and show understanding of data limitations when exploring a hypothesis. Honing these skills in Year 12 puts them ahead in their university learning, and beyond. And it is easier than you think – for both the teacher and the student!

What is an individual Investigation?

An individual Investigation’s aim is to showcase the student’s interest in a particular subject. This starts with their background literature around their chosen topic, which leads to their specific research question. They will form a hypothesis and create a procedure to collect relevant data, being mindful of the variables that may affect that data. They will then clearly display the trends within their data and decide whether their hypothesis is supported or rejected. Finally, they will critique their own investigation to discuss the strengths and limitations of the data collection and how they would further their investigation. Our students need to show that they are scientifically literate in the 10-hour time recommendation to complete the coursework. Showcasing this ability is not down to how you collect the data, but rather what you understand from it.

The false safety net of a ‘wet practical’

Traditionally, my students and I always leaned towards creating a ‘wet practical’* procedure to collect data for their Investigation. Intuitively, this is what they gravitated towards because it was the upgrade from completing the prescribed wet practical investigations. Of course, they also believed that creating their own “new” procedure meant that they were showcasing their biological skills. The use of large-scale databanks and virtual simulations seemed overly complicated and risky.

Unless you are extremally fortunate, it is highly unlikely your secondary science labs are equipped with electron microscopes and computers powerful enough to analyse the molecular structure of chemicals, or the negative pressure needed to conduct reliable microbiology experiments. Let’s assume your school laboratory is also not in CERN. We found that our students’ curiosity to explore the abstract phenomena in Physics, Chemistry and Biology was often limited by the equipment we had to collect reliable results for their Investigation. With the added limited hours that we had in our year to dedicate to practical investigations, the safety net of designing a wet practical in fact began to limit our students’ ability to show off their scientific thinking and data analysis, because precious time was wasted in working out how to collect the data.

This safety net of avoiding large databanks was also false, because students need to utilise the same statistical analysis and evaluative skills to analyse their own data. Except, their data pool would be tiny and with the predictable inaccuracies with collecting the data in a school laboratory.

* A ‘wet practical’ is how we refer to an experiment conducted in real life .A ‘dry practical’ is how we refer to an experiment conducted in a virtual environment.

Databanks and virtual simulations as ‘dry’ practicals’

My lightbulb moment to move our students predominantly to data collection using virtual simulations and databanks came during COVID, when a very high achieving student wanted to investigate evolution as her individual Investigation. In the 10 prescribed hours we could work on her coursework, she wanted to collect data to analyse how the speed of organisms contributed to altering the gene pool through natural selection in a set population, then evaluate the strengths of that data to discover how she can further her understanding of rapid change in ecosystems in our present-day Earth. Basically, she wanted to condense thousands of years of evolution into about two hours of data collection.

We wanted her to continue this investigation idea. It beautifully captured her innovative application of her biological knowledge to a real-world phenomenon. It was not yet another enzyme or microbiology investigation. Unfortunately, Professor McGonagall’s Time Turner* wasn’t available for the student to use, so she found her own virtual ecosystem, populated by blobs…

In this virtual ecosystem, our student could adjust the variables herself and run the simulation for a set number of ‘years.’ Within this time, data was collected on the birth rate, death rate and size of each blob. This rich data was then used for the student to analyse in detail. The student explained the controlled variables she chose in her investigation report and to what extent these variables affected the validity of her results – the same as she would in a ‘wet practical’.

It was that simple! Her data collection took her less than an hour. She got one of the highest IB Higher Level coursework results we had seen in the history of Deira International School.

Thankfully, this was not a one-off. Once this student showed others how she collected her data, exploring large databanks and simulations became less daunting for her fellow students. In my class of 20, I had students collecting data on how the distance between islands affected the migratory patterns of birds with different wingspans (another virtual simulation), and several students investigating the effect of the Human Development Index of countries on the prevalence of contagious and non-contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, lung cancer and heart disease using the databanks provided by organisations such as WHO and the UN.

*A time-travel device from the Harry Potter franchise.

Summary

I can confidently say that it would have been an impossibility to conduct 20 wet practicals in my science laboratory at the same time. My students’ decision to go for using virtual simulations and databanks also hugely helped them gain the best results that Deira International School has ever seen for IB HL Biology.

There is a place for ‘wet practical’ data collection and valuable skill sets that are essential for the continued development of students in post-16 education. However, refocusing on not how to collect the data, but what the student can gain from data means that they can now explore scientific phenomena that takes them far beyond the four walls of the school laboratory – and their scientific ability is all the stronger for it.

Author

  • Linda Scaife

    Linda is a keen science teacher who loves using technology to make her life easier and her students’ lessons engaging and relevant. After teaching for nine years, she is now an Innovation Lead over two schools, to ensure technology provides the support for every part of the school to thrive. In her spare time she is either found tweeting, cooking or underwater.

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