Teaching Students & Educators at West Chester University Print
Monday, 28 July 2008 00:00

physiology studentsDuring June 2008, Dr. Giovanni Casotti and Dr. Maureen Knabb, Professors of Biology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, hosted life science educators from across North America to share curriculum ideas, teaching experiments and laboratory techniques. As teachers to at least 400 students every year, Dr. Casotti and Dr. Knabb are well-qualified to share what does and doesn't work in the laboratory classroom.

Dr. Casotti and Dr. Knabb use PowerLab teaching systems with Chart (now LabChart) software in three of their courses. West Chester has been using their systems with the Macintosh operating system for the past three years, and runs laboratories using inquiry approaches to learning, "where students take ownership of their experiments because they are the ones coming up with ideas to test".

For the past two years Dr. Casotti and Dr. Knabb, with their colleague Loretta Reiser-Danner, have presented conference papers with results from implementing this learning approach as, "Inquiry-based learning in physiology laboratories using computer technology" in the FASEB Journal.

Replacing Chart Recorders in Student Laboratories
West Chester's PowerLab systems replaced six physiographs. The physiographs cost over $10,000 each, getting the constantly-needed parts for repair was both expensive and difficult, and the possible experiments, "limited student creativity, and students used to view the lab negatively as a result" says Dr. Casotti.

In contrast, "PowerLab simply WORKS. It never crashes or has to be rebooted, and is 100% reliable. There is little if anything students can do to mess up their experiments," says Dr. Casotti. Further, the PowerLab systems, "can do a greater variety of experiments for a fraction of the cost".

Making an Impact on Non-Major Students
Twice a year, West Chester runs a Human Anatomy and Physiology course for non-majors. The large cohorts are divided into lab groups of 20 students, with each PowerLab teaching system being shared among four students. Since switching to PowerLab data acquisition, "one laboratory instructor is sufficient to handle questions… The instructor has little direction to give the students and can instead spend their time explaining the physiology," says Dr. Casotti. "Students enjoy the ability to very quickly obtain data that actually looks like the textbook's and it only takes minutes to record an ECG with the system".

Furthermore, "our assessment data indicates that student learning has increased, no mean feat in our non-majors classroom. Exam scores have increased, particularly on inquiry-based exam questions and students seem more comfortable and happier attending lab".

Challenging 400 Level Students
phys workshpDr. Knabb and Dr. Casotti also use PowerLab teaching systems with their 400 level Human Physiology and Comparative Vertebrate Physiology courses for Biology Majors respectively. The flexibility of PowerLab systems means these students can perform more complex experiments that better suit their advanced curriculum.

According to Dr. Casotti, "Students collect data from a wide range of animal models, including humans. Human experiments include psychophysiology and the GSR reflex, ECG, pulse, heart sounds, respiratory physiology and metabolic rate experiments. Animal experiments include compound axon potential generation, nerve-muscle interaction, frog ECG and force transduction and metabolic rate experiments".

Dr. Casotti has developed his own lab manuals for students in these courses. The manuals include a series of ADInstruments Chart experiments customized to suit the specific learning outcomes at West Chester, as well as unique experiments developed by Dr. Casotti.

Instructing the Instructors
As most North American educators are winding down over the summer months, Dr. Casotti has opened his curriculum and laboratory to faculty from different institutions as host of this month's Student Laboratory Techniques Workshop.

Educators at last year's workshop.
Now in its second year, the workshop gives educators the chance to find out how other institutions are using PowerLab, LabChart and LabTutor software in their classrooms. The group also works towards developing new experiments that can be used by everyone's students, and there are ADInstruments staff on-hand to answer any questions. Dr. Casotti describes the workshops as, "a win-win for all parties".

To see more, go to the ADInstruments web site.