Creating the iLab

Upgrading the Lyman Briggs School (LBS) Biology Laboratories
(Rooms C-4, C-5 Holmes Hall) at Michigan State University

  • Read a story about the iLabs by Apple Computer

  • by Douglas Luckie, Assistant Professor of LBS (endorsed by Diane Ebert-May, Director of LBS)


    Resources for renovating the infrastructure of teaching laboratories are difficult to accrue currently in any college or university. Yet laboratories built in the 1960s can gain a modern look and have a technology-based learning function for a relatively low cost. In 1999 we proposed to MSU the creation of iLabs - to bring color, technology, research, creativity, and importantly, increased learning of biology by all students in the Lyman Briggs School undergraduate biology program. The project was approved by the College of Natural Sciences and MSU and the iLabs were created in early 2000. You can see what it looks like by viewing photos or watching the iMovie (below). This pilot project is meant to serve as a model for MSU and other institutions for renovating undergraduate science laboratories without mortar and bricks - an inexpensive alternative - the iLab!

    Goal: To renovate the biology teaching laboratories by rehabilitating current facilities and introducing new technologies at each research bench (benchtop computers and digital cameras).

    Purpose: To give the students better tools with which to study & learn biology. Tools that will allow them to: (i) design new experimental approaches, (ii) perform 'on demand' searches for relevant biological information, (iii) capture and manage data in new ways, (iv) evaluate and communicate their lab reports in new ways. To create a state-of-the-art research space with high tech tools for facilitating better learning in undergraduate biology.

    Aim 1: REPAIRS: Repair existing facilities including: electrical outlets, faucets, handles & knobs, and drawers & doors on the cabinets and research benches.

    Aim 2: DIGITAL IMAGE CAPTURE: Add digital still photo cameras, Sony Mavicas, and digital video camcorders, Sony Digital8 Camcorders, to facilitate photo-documentation in teaching laboratories.

    Aim 3: BENCHTOP COMPUTERS: Add iMacDV computers to facilitate teaching research and movie making in biology laboratories. Position the computers on pedestal swivel supports at one end of each laboratory bench.

    Watch a Quicktime Movie of the iLabs!
    Small  160x120  (5 MB) |  Large 320x240  (28 MB)


    Curriculum, Equipment, and Laboratory Development

    The LBS biology undergraduate teaching laboratories (C-4 and C-5) underwent a relatively low-cost renovation. They were repaired and equipped to significantly enhance the technical scope and sophistication of undergraduate laboratories in all areas of inquiry-based biology. Many courses are taught in this facility from freshman-level 'Introductory Organismal Biology' to junior-level 'Advanced Molecular Biology' to senior-level 'Independent Research.' In addition, "Best of Both Worlds" tours (prospective students and their families touring LBS) and LEAP programs (high school students exposed to college science) use this research space.

    The two laboratories gained eight iMacDV computers (one for each lab bench), eight Sony Mavica digital cameras, two Sony 'Digital8' digital camcorders and the required support equipment and supplies for the day to day use of these technologies. These cameras and computers will be used for: internet access, word processing, graphing, spreadsheet programs, DNA sequence analysis, image capture, movie making/presentation and in particular, many course-specific packages like population growth simulators and animal dissection images.


    Scientists document their visual findings with photography and our students should too. The addition of digital cameras will be a simple yet powerful modernization to the tools currently available in the teaching labs. We have chosen the Sony Mavica digital camera because it uses a floppy disk for recording its images. It may seem odd to combine a floppy dependent camera with a floppy free computer, but we don't want these cameras working with the iMacs. These are devices that will exist in high enrollment introductory classes where in-lab time is devoted to scientific experimentation not image manipulation. Thus with a Mavica camera tethered to each laboratory bench, students can bring their own floppy disks and photograph as many images as they like in their laboratory exercises (one floppy disk can hold up to ~50 photos). After completing lab, students take their floppy disk home to their own computer and, outside of class, use the images as figures in the creation of traditional research papers or less-traditional websites to report their findings.


    With a 'macro' lens and adapter, the camera can photograph images through any microscope in the laboratory. Thus, for example, in the organismal biology course (LBS-144), students could take photos of various dissections and microbiology exercises. They could also capture images of medaka or sea urchin development over time. In the cell and molecular biology course (LBS-145), several investigations could benefit from photo-documentation tools including: carbohydrate diagnostic assays (that yield colored solutions), paper chromatography, colony growth in bacterial transformation, and agarose gel electrophoresis. Long-term investigations are also ideal targets for photo-documentation. Students can capture the progressive stages of hormone-induced growth of their tobacco plants over 6 weeks. They can also contribute their best research images to an archive of examples for future classes. As a result the course will steadily gain more example images and students will become involved in the process of teaching.


    The integration of benchtop computers in the biology laboratory delivers instructional tools, reference sources, and data acquisition devices directly to the student scientist. Traditional PCs are large multicomponent systems that dominate too much bench space in the wet lab. Apple iMacDV computers are small, light, fast, easy to use and wireless. If you'd like to do wireless networking and make movies, they are significantly less expensive than PC systems ($1299 vs $2999+). Digital video facilities built into iMac DV computers make generating short instructional quicktime movies simple and easy. We intend movie making to be a part of the upper-level undergraduate classes with smaller enrollments. This is where the Sony Digital8 camcorders come into play.  When you're not making movies, reference sources can also be quite useful when they are right at the investigator's fingertips. Internet databases, vivid images, and special software packages can assist the student as they do investigations in the course laboratories. Data acquisition devices are also made possible by benchtop computers. USB/firewire-based hand-held spectrophotometers and various sensors can record and display data directly on the computer.


    Current laboratory investigations in LBS biology courses are being enhanced by benchtop computers. Benchtop computers are delivering movies, animations, and slide imagery directly to the undergraduate investigator at the wet bench. For example: the organismal course (LBS-144) uses the computers to deliver genetics/population simulation software, as well as, to allow students to view the development of medaka fish from egg to adult. The cell and molecular course (LBS-145) uses the benchtop computers for viewing 3-D structures of the molecules of the week. In addition, "DNA Stream" exercises are enhanced by giving students access to DNA sequence analysis software (DNA Strider) at the bench. Computers can be a resource to obtain protocols for experiments, to deliver quizzes or summary sheets, and to view CD-ROM animations of biological mechanisms (Bio-Sci Explorer). Since digital camcorders are available to the student scientist THEY can create movies of their research findings and edit the video on the iMacs. Do you think a student might enjoy creating a webpage instead of a written paper? How about one with both color still images (mavicas) and a short movie showing the experiment or animal they were studying. See what we are doing in a senior seminar course in Fall 2000 ( In addition the instructor can make movies to be delivered to orient the students. As instructional tools, these movies could be used for orientation, safety review or to introduce the topics of this week's lab.


    The availability of new tools may have benefits yet unforeseen by this proposal. When computer projection equipment was first introduced into the Lyman Briggs lecture hall (C-106 Holmes Hall), faculty did not at first see any great use for it. Now numerous lectures depend on it. Given new tools in the laboratory, faculty will have the opportunity to create new exercises that may not have been previously possible. These courses also have several opportunities where the students pursue independent investigations, it is likely your students may develop new uses for the technology that you have not yet considered.


    The Vision

    iMacs in Action (Photogallery)

    Welcome to the iJungle (Lyman Briggs' organismal biology iLab)

    The wireless benchtop computing begins.

    Teams can make movies of organisms with digital camcorders and
    then go to the iMac to 'develop' their film with 'iMovie.'

    Paper lab reports turn into WEB research articles with still and moving color images.

    Biology content is delivered to the student scientist via the web and quicktime.

    Many sources of information are available for the student investigator

    You can't go wrong with the internet beside your dissection scope

    Lab is quite colorful today

    The computer doesn't steal so much space that the wet lab becomes dry


    Monitor stands to place iMacs above bench:
    8 Curtis Monitor Stands @$62 each ->subtotal $496.00

    Benchtop computers and Accessories:
    9 Apple iMac DV computers @1221.02 each  ->subtotal $10,989.18
    9 Apple Airport Cards @$87.01 each ->subtotal $783.09
    2 Apple Airport Base Stations @262.97 each ->subtotal $525.94
    9 Apple Care 3 Year Warrantees @116.33 each ->subtotal $1046
    9 Kensington Security Cables @20 each ->subtotal $180.00
    9 iMac Covers @19.99 each  ->subtotal $179.91
    8 Belkin Surge suppressors @12.99 each ->subtotal $103.92

    Digital Cameras and Accessories:
    8 Sony Mavica Digital Cameras @$470 each  ->subtotal $3,760.00
    2 Mavica Macro lenses 2X @49.99 each ->subtotal $99.98
    4 Mavica Macro lenses 4X @ 59.99 each ->subtotal $119.98

    Digital Camcorders and Accessories:
    2 Sony Digital8 TRV-120 Camcorders @$725 each ->subtotal $1450
    10 Hi8 videotapes @$12.99 each  ->subtotal $129.90

    Give students a CDROM with their movies on it:
    1 Que! Firewire CD-RW Drive@$299.99  ->subtotal $299.99
    50 CDR disks 50-Pack@$64.99   ->subtotal $64.99

               Total iLabs' Cost (two laboratories): $20,000