Educational games to make learning more engaging for students are nothing new, but Labster, a bio-tech education startup founded back in 2011 and just now coming out of stealth, has gone further than most by creating an entire virtualised laboratory for teaching bio-tech students without the need to purchase expensive lab equipment or conduct potentially hazardous experiments for real.
Labster launched its lab simulation software (or “eLearning video game” as it dubs it) last week. It’s offering free user accounts for people signing up in the first three months. After which it will be charging for use — with a fee for each new virtual cases (going the downloadable content route), selling via the iPad App Store.
Labster is also already selling licenses for its software to universities and schools, and also to corporates for training. Current customers include Stanford, Hong Kong and Copenhagen Universities. The software has been tested by more than 10,000 students over the past year.
So what is Labster? “Basically a science video game,” says co-founder and CTO Michael Bodekaer. “A video game that actually teaches you how to do anything like Sequencing DNA and become a Bio-Engineer or even a CSI agent. Not just theoretically, but hands on. You for instance actually get to solve a CSI murder case as a real forensics analyst.”
Which sounds pretty neat — but it is that disruptive? Yes, argues Labster, because access to the highly expensive lab instruments and equipment its software is simulating is necessarily limited.
“Where students and bio-curious folk could never get access to the hundred-thousand dollar NGS machines, Electron-Microscopes or even HPLCs, they now have 24/7 access to a virtual 3D laboratory full of all these awesome machines, with real-life mathematical simulations of anything from basic PH base/acidity simulations to DNA manipulations and enzyme simulations (all made in Unity3D for web and iPad). And you get a knowledgeable virtual assistant to show you how to use all their the cool new toys,” Bodekaer adds.
Labster also argues that another advantage of using a software simulation of lab experiments vs the real deal is it allows more of the molecular processes to be made visible via interactive molecular 3D animations — instead of the real thing being obscured behind the walls of the machinery. Which is clearly better for learning. Labster has also added quiz questions and interactive feedback to its software to further enhance the education experience.
It says its aim is to break down the traditional lab teaching method of requiring students to follow “a pre-ordained cookbook recipe of the experiment” — and rather allow them to follow an “inquiry based approach” where they can choose their actions and make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. It claims these methods have been shown to be more effective than traditional teaching methods.
Asked about competitors in the space, Bodekaer cites LateNiteLabs and McGrawHill LearnSmart Labs as the main ones — but argues that Labster stands apart because it’s also reworking the education “flow”, as well as virtualising high tech equipment to widen access.
“Our competitors have simply virtualized the traditional science teaching method that have been documented to be very ineffective in numerous scientific studies. In collaboration with learning researchers and professors we have innovated the entire learning flow by re-inventing science education covering everything from engaging and fun real-world scenarios, to interactive 3D animations explaining what happens even on a nano-level, to applying modern teaching methods that optimizes learning effectiveness and retention,” he argues.
“We furthermore focus on offering students the latest advanced research equipment, such as a $700.000 Next Generation DNA Sequencing machine by leveraging our advanced mathematical simulation engine, where our competitors simply rely on the older and simpler equipment used only in traditional school teaching.”
There’s also the platform angle. Bodekaer says Labster’s competitors are focusing on older technology — namely Flash — while it’s targeting the iPad market to allow learning to be mobilised. “All our competitors rely on the dying Flash technology, preventing them from entering e.g. the iPad market,” he adds. “We leverage the state-of-the-art 3D gaming engine called Unity3D, which is cross platform and compiles natively to iPads, Androids, Mac, PC, all web browsers and even iPods.”
Labster’s other co-founder and CEO is Mads Bonde, who brings the bio-tech education background to the mix. The startup’s current funding is $1 million in grants and non-equity support, but Bodekaer says it’s “in early dialogues with several investors for a potential Series-A funding”.