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Benjamin David and Faisal Masood develop virtual test of laboratory skills

left to right: Benjamin David, Faisal Masood

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced suspension of in-person classes in early March, instructors of a bioengineering course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign faced a conundrum – how to quickly shift to online instruction for the remainder of the semester and remotely conduct the practical exam for the course.

“The ‘Cell and Tissue Engineering Lab’ course is one of the most important core classes for bioengineering students, so it’s paramount that this course adapts appropriately to distance learning,” said teaching assistant professor Karin Jensen, the instructor who teaches the course in Grainger College of Engineering.

“When the pandemic hit and campus closed, we had to come up with new and creative ways to still deliver the course,” said graduate student Benjamin David, one of the course’s teaching assistants. “That was really challenging because it was such a hands-on course that we had trouble thinking of ways that we could still deliver quality instruction.”

One of the biggest obstacles to delivering the course online was determining how to conduct the practical exam remotely. The exam requires students to demonstrate that they can follow technical and professional protocols and are proficient in using laboratory equipment.

During the in-person practical exam, a lab assistant shadowed each student for about two hours as they cultured cells in the lab. Students were given a flask of mouse cells to detach from one plate and move to a new plate.

They also used a hemocytometer to manually count a sample of the cells and performed a number of calculations in order to seed the cell sample in a solution in a new flask at a density assigned by the instructor, said Faisal Masood, an alumnus who was a teaching assistant for the course until graduation last spring.

“Normally, the lab practical is a physical thing,” said Masood, now a first-year student in medicine at the U. of I. at Chicago. “We’re testing students’ lab skills, and you can’t do that remotely.”

In exploring alternative methods for delivering the remaining content for the semester and the cell-culture practical exam, David found that resources available on the internet were mostly cartoon-based simulations that did not realistically depict lab environments or replicate the tasks involved.

The team devised a multimedia exam format. Within a few hectic days prior to the campus shutting down, Masood recorded David performing cell cultures in the lab and deliberately making mistakes. The students received 10 video clips at random to view and critique, identifying David’s errors in lab protocol or technique and explaining why those gaffes were problematic.

If students can recognize the mistakes someone else is making, they are more likely to understand the proper techniques and protocols, and avoid making those errors themselves, David and Masood said.

For the data-analysis portion of the practical exam, David used the programming language MATLAB to create a script that randomly generated images of cells, similar to how they’d appear if viewed in a hemocytometer in the lab. Students viewed the images online and performed the calculations necessary to seed the cells in a new flask at an assigned density.

“We created a pool of 10-15 different calculation problems for them to do,” Masood said.

Because each exam-taker received a subset of the problems in random order, “most likely they would not receive the same problems as their friends, so it didn’t make sense for them to collaborate over a Zoom call, for example. That alleviated some of the potential for academic dishonesty,” Masood said.

David, Jensen and Masood described the development of the virtual practical exam and analyzed its strengths and limitations in a paper published in the journal Biomedical Engineering Education.

While a virtual exam cannot replace the experience of in-person learning, they said it conveyed a number of benefits, including reducing students’ feelings of stress associated with performing the practical exam under the watchful eyes of a teaching assistant.

Because enrollment in the course is growing, and lab space, equipment and the number of lab assistants are limited, the in-person practical exam would require a total of one week out of the semester to conduct.

The virtual lab practical exam mitigates many of these problems, Jensen said.

While some students said they would have preferred in-person instruction and felt they did not retain the knowledge as well with remote learning, students’ grades were comparable to those of peers from prior semesters, the team found.

The digital resources they developed for the spring 2020 semester expanded the growing library of resources that they had already created to support student learning and are available to help current and future students, David said.

Prior to the pandemic shutdown, David and Masood, who were in their fourth semester as teaching assistants for the course last spring, noticed that students consistently struggled with certain concepts or skills such as using microscopes and other equipment. To strengthen student learning, they created a series of video tutorials to explain the equipment and techniques.

The Office of Student Financial Aid recognized David and Masood for their teaching excellence with awards in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

“Ben and Faisal have been fantastic instructors for the course,” Jensen said. “Their ability to work creatively and quickly to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the course delivery was admirable, and the tools they developed will continue to benefit students in bioengineering for many years.”

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Photo left to right: Benjamin David, Faisal Masood 

Watch Faisal Masood in a tutorial video on how to use various pieces of lab equipment. 

Story by Sharita Forrest, Education Editor, U. of I. News Bureau, reposted from the Illinois News Bureau (October 23, 2020).

To contact Benjamin David, email

To contact Faisal Masood, email

The paper “The development and implementation of a virtual cell culture lab practical for an introductory BME lab” is available online or from the News Bureau.