The Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University has developed a series of science apps called Virtual Labs. These apps are great for teachers that are unable to use physical science labs to teach, and act as a supplement to the the physical labs focusing on food science. The steps that students have to follow in the apps are similar to the ones they would use in physical labs, which makes it easier for them to make the switch when the time comes to implement their learnings in a physical lab. Students can turn the focus dials on a microscope, light Bunsen burners, look at corn under UV light, perform tests on Petrifilm Plate and calibrate a pH meter among many other interactions available in the eight apps provided by them.
Each of the apps cover a different experiment or lab technique that students can become familiar with before stepping foot in a physical lab. All the images shown in the apps look similar to how those items would look in a physical lab, making it easier for students to understand. The step by step description is similar to the description the lab instructor would give in a physical lab. While using this app, the instructor can show the students how the different equipments look and then have the students play the apps. This'll help them gain a better understanding as they would be able to link the physical equipments to the digital ones. In cases where the equipments are not physically available, the instructors can show images of them in class to help students understand better. Additionally, there are certain parts in the apps that show such images which negates the use of having to show them outside of the app.
Testing for Corn Mold Mycotoxins
This app teaches how to perform a test to find mold on corn that can produce toxins that make people sick. This app teaches about how to test for the presence of such toxins. It also explains tests such a presumptive test, which is a test that is performed to find a toxin called aflatoxin in the corn. The app is not just visual, as there are certain parts like spreading out the corn, turning off the room light, turn on black light, which are the steps that students would perform in a physical lab. As you can see, this app considers all those minor steps while explaining the test digitally. Additionally, students can measure corn using a scale, setting the timer, expel air from pipette, and so on.
This app teaches about testing milk samples for bacteria. The lab equipments used for these tests are Petrifilm Plate, disposable pipette, and Quick Swabs. It explains what each of these equipment is used for and also shows how to use it. The detailed explanation of not only these equipments but also the difference between pasteurized and raw milk helps students get a detailed understanding of these tests. It shows how to use a bunsen burner as well as how to label the Petrifilm plate and placing it in the incubator.
This app teaches about testing yogurt for bacteria that are undesirable and make people sick. It explains how bad yogurt looks like and how to perform gram staining by viewing it under a microscope. Some of the parts of the app also show images of how different bacteria look like in a physical lab setting under the microscope. This app has a section in which students have to perform the test on their own, which tests their understanding of the tutorials. This replicates the physical lab setting in which the instructor teaches first and then the students have to perform the tests on their own. Even in this section, there are hints available just like an instructor would give in a physical lab.
Using the Microscope
Using the microscope is one of the most fun tasks in a lab setting. This app explains the use of a microscope by taking the gram staining samples prepared in the previous app. This helps students link both the tests together. It starts with explaining the different parts of a microscope, and then explains the difference between different lenses and how to use them. One of the interactive parts include rotating the lenses, adjusting diaphragm to allow more light to come through and using the knob to focus the image. The test ends with showing details like how to clean the lenses, turning off light source, unplugging, and so on, which are important tasks to perform in a physical lab setting after finishing the tests.
The pH Scale and Meter Calibration
This app teaches how food scientists use pH scale to analyze if food is safe to eat or not. It explains what the different pH scale ranges means and what the scale for acidic and basic substances look like. A pH indicator paper is used to access the pH scale, which helps to see if substances are acidic or basic. The app explains what organism causes botulism, which is dangerous to us. Some parts of the app also has a quiz like interactive section in which students have to match the ingredients to its pH scale to see if they reach the safe level of acidity. It also shows how to use the pH meter to test the pH of any product.
Testing and Adjusting pH
This app is an addition to the previous app about measuring a product's pH scale. This app teaches about testing the pH of a product, which in our case is salsa, to see if it contains Clostridium botulinum (C. bot) which produces deadly toxins harmful to us. Our goal in this app is to create salsa of pH less than 4.6 which makes it safe to eat. To lower pH, lemon juice is added as acid to the salsa and then it is measured using the pH meter to see which salsa sample is perfect and safe to eat. It ends with explaining the steps that companies follow to make sure that salsa is safe to eat as well as delicious.
Understanding Water Activity
This app explains how water acts inside food and how it spoils it. Water activity inside food is the reason behind food spoilage and shortened shelf life. Certain food items need to be kept in a cold environment to prevent growth of harmful microbes. Food with low water activity last longer, where as food with high water activity encourages the growth of microorganisms. This app explains how some food like jam don't spoil quickly even though they look moist. Water allows the growth of microbes, and food like crackers don't have water, which prevents their growth as they cannot survive without water. It also explains which method would work best to preserve food like strawberries.
Controlling Water Activity
Just like adjusting the pH scale, this app teaches how to control water activity in food. It shows how to test the safety of food like sun-dried corn. It not only shows how to test the water activity, but also shows how to dry the corn. This app explains how the environment that corn is stored in affects its water activity, and shows how to test it using the water activity meter. It then shows that we need to take multiple measurements and take the average of them, just like we would in a physical setting. There is also a section in which students have to try the test on their own, which accesses their understanding. After noting down the water activity of different samples, we can see which environment is best to store dried corn.
The Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University is a development studio, a user-testing research space, and an exploratory environment for playing and evaluating games and educational tools. Its parent department, NMSU Media Productions, partners with research groups, faculty, and programs nationally and internationally to create educational media in various disciplines.
Griva Patel is a currently pursuing Master of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University. With a team of 5 students, she is working on a project making an app that focuses on a rapid practice of addition and subtraction operators. This app involves fixing robots while doing math exercises. Griva is passionate about designing educational games and is an Intern for Teachers With Apps.