In many societies around the world, students’ ability and enthusiasm to pursue STEM fields in their high school and college careers are limited by a lack of resources that prevent them from accessing complex, project-based curricula like their peers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these existing educational disparities, requiring new solutions to democratize access to this field.
UC Santa Cruz researchers have developed a way to use remote-controlled, internet-connected microscopes to enable students anywhere in the world to participate in the design and implementation of biology experiments.
A new study in the journal Helion It details this new and scalable framework for delivering project-based STEM education to students who would not otherwise have access to it. The researchers applied microscopy technology in the biology classes of several Latinx communities in the United States and Latin America, and found their technology to be an effective and scalable way to give underrepresented STEM students the ability to perform complex experiments remotely.
“Taking an internet-connected camera and putting it in the view of a microscope is something a lot of labs can do,” said Pierre Boudin, Ph.D. in computer engineering. student at the Baskin College of Engineering and senior author on the paper. “By setting out 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 create a similar type of experiment, allowing this concept to spread.”
Tissue culture experiments are not typically unheard of in high school and even the first few years of college, however, 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 perform these experiences.
“We allow students to conduct experiments that would not normally be feasible [many] “Schools all over the world, either because the materials are dangerous, or because the equipment is too expensive, or require specific training for both teachers and students,” said Mohammad Mostajo Radji, the first researcher on this study.
Develop the new method
While project-based learning has proven to be an effective method for teaching STEM concepts, it is constrained by barriers such as the cost and logistics of shipping materials to isolated communities, limited teacher training, under-resourced schools, and potential exposure to hazardous materials. With deep experience working with educational nonprofits, UCSC Genomics Institute’s Mostajo-Radji determined that a successful solution must be scalable, affordable, adaptable to the school’s local context, and allow students to fully explore the scientific method.
Mostajo-Radji and several other UCSC Genomics researchers involved in this project believe that performing complex biological experiments via remotely controlled microscopes could be a solution that fits these criteria.
The technology powering these remote experiments was originally developed to enable researchers from several geographically separate institutions to collaborate on stem cell research as part of a multi-institutional group called the Braingeneers. Graduate students Baudin and Victoria Ly have developed a tool to control microscopes remotely from anywhere in the world, to enable non-invasive monitoring of cell cultures in incubators.
Mustagu Radje, formerly Bolivia’s ambassador for science, technology and innovation, recognized that microscopy technology could be leveraged for remote education amid growing education gaps in equity during the pandemic.
“[The remote-controlled microscopes] “It wasn’t developed for the purpose of education,” said Mustagu-Radji. “What we’ve done is take a lot of the lessons we’ve learned from my work and the work of other nonprofits to build something absolutely amazing.”
Mostajo-Radji believes this paper is the first to describe a method that is truly remote and makes full use of the scientific method, bringing inquiry and active learning into lessons, which can be of particular interest to students who do not rely on memorization.
Learning from students around the world
The paper outlines a framework for laboratories and other classrooms to conduct remotely controlled experiments, in which students design an experiment, make observations, analyze data, and present their findings.
The researchers learned from several user studies that used the method both domestically with advanced biology students at Alisal High School in Salinas, and abroad with students from two different universities in Bolivia and multinational students involved in the nonprofit Science Clubs International. The experiments took place in Santa Cruz and San Francisco and were accessed entirely by students remotely. Each group’s lessons reflected the student’s local context and reinforced an already existing curriculum.
The first pilot program began in fall 2020 at the height of the pandemic. Programs varied between the different groups, usually lasting about eight weeks. The researchers met weekly for lessons with some groups of students, and with other groups they gave a tutorial on how to use the technology initially and allowed them to run the experiments independently.
One of the experiments conducted with the students at Salinas was a “clinical trial in a dish” that allowed the students to see the effect of new drugs on neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor, in cell lineages. In other experiments, the students studied the biocompatibility of custom-made gold and graphene nanoparticles
Surveys conducted at the end of user study programs showed that this method positively affected STEM identity among both groups, although it is stronger among Bolivian students, and led to an increase in general interest in STEM for participating students. These findings provided an opportunity to understand motivation for STEM among the Latino population without extrapolating conclusions from a single geographically limited study.
“For a lot of these education strategies and policies, [researchers] “I would like to believe that a study conducted in a particular region of the world is a model for informing politics in a different part of the world,” said Mustagu-Radji. [in California] and Hispanics abroad, in the context of the exact same class, the exact same lesson, and the exact same experiences.”
The team is now in the process of applying for grants to build infrastructure to expand this work. They envision an app that would allow high school and community college students from anywhere in the world who might not go into research to design and implement experiments completely remotely. The researchers recently set up the Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Lab to expand the use of their technology.
Ideally, they would have hundreds of microscopes running various experiments. Mostajo-Radji imagines that students from different parts of the world can be in the same group and learn from the same data together.
The researchers are actively looking for more partners through conferences to create relationships outside of the schools they worked with in 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 create 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 electrical properties of biological cells and tissues, to unseen learners.
“The microscopy was, in a way, a low hanging fruit,” said Mustagu-Radji. “It’s only the beginning.”
UCSD graduate students Raina Saxteder, Atish Worthington, Katrina Voytyuk, and Victoria Lee were major contributors to this study. This work was supported by the Schmidt Futures Initiative and the National Science Foundation.