Biology Lab

Normandale biology lab

Proves to be a desirable educational model

By Alicia L. Conroy

When Normandale opened the Jodsaas Science Center in 2004, one focal point was the innovative Open Biology Laboratory, more popularly known as the Biology Learning Center.

Students work more efficiently in open lab model
The philosophy is as ground-breaking as the facility: students from many different biology classes can use varied work stations to complete self-scheduled lab assignments or participate in guided practicums.

Lab attracts many visitors
Since it opened, the new lab has attracted many visitors from other learning institutions who are curious to see the new space and approach.

Bob Barni, biology faculty, says word has been going around that Normandale has an interesting model. "We feel kind of honored," he says, "that other professors and administrators want to learn about the Open Biology Lab".

Among the many visitors who have toured the lab, seeking ideas for their own science programs, are representatives from the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota and biology faculty from Inver Hills Community College.

Other institutions plan to copy model
Last fall, representatives from the new University of Minnesota-Rochester campus including Dr. Stephen Lehmkuhle, the Chancellor, and Dr. Claudia Neuhauser of the Dept. of Ecology, toured the lab. Neuhauser says she was very interested in learning about this laboratory format.

"Students working in groups independently with access to faculty whenever they have questions is a wonderful way to engage students actively," she notes. "This is a model I would like to implement on our new campus in Rochester. I was very impressed by how dedicated the faculty are and how well this model seems to work."

Open lab atmosphere nice to work in
The Open Biology Lab is a bright, open room punctuated by arrays of lab benches. At the entrance, flanked by aquariums, a desk is staffed by laboratory assistants.

Field biology students might examine taxidermy specimens of local birds, while at a neighboring table, others disassemble a model of a human torso to prepare for a human anatomy quiz. Nearby, others prepare an experiment using gel electrophoresis.

Flexible space = flexible use = improved learning
In many cases, students are allowed to complete a lab assignment at any time during the week, which is a life-saver for students with complex work and school demands; procrastinators quickly learn that ends of weeks are busy. Barni explains that students can schedule for particular times when instructors are available, if they need direct assistance; at other times, lab assistants familiar with the various activities are available.

A trade-off is that an instructor doesn't get to see every student's progress on every activity. Barni says another advantage is the way the open space stimulates curiosity as students observe activities for other classes. Overall, both faculty and students feel the new format is a model for effective learning.