Virtual Reality in Biology Education to Facilitate Immersive and Interactive Learning

Virtual Reality in Biology Education to Facilitate Immersive and Interactive Learning

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Media Type
Learning@NIE Issue 3,

by Asst Prof Chen Zhong, Natural Sciences and Science Education Academic Group


Why Virtual Reality in Biology Education?

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated scenario that simulates a realistic experience. VR is not new. However, VR has been in the spotlight recently with all the major players like Microsoft, Samsung, Apple, Google, Facebook, and so on. VR Education is widely considered as one of the most viable VR applications. A large number of research papers are published over the last few years discussing VR in education.

As a biology lecturer, Asst Prof Chen Zhong (NSSE) is collaborating with a VR expert A/Prof Cai Yiyu at School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Nanyang Technological University to introduce VR technology in the teaching of molecular biology. In this domain, textbooks typically depict molecular and cellular processes such as protein synthesis and enzyme operation with iconic representations of macro-molecules. Whereas this representation is useful to obtain a global view of the processes, concrete aspects of the processes are not covered in such a representation but are still important for understanding the essence of the processes involved. For instance, apart from the "lock and key" idea of enzyme that is involved in order for molecules to "snap" into each other, the molecules themselves are dynamic structures and their movements within the cells complicate the dynamics. The textbook representation may give rise to the misconception that molecules display purposeful behaviour, but a VR representation that incorporates dynamics can give rise to a more accurate "mechanistic" way of reasoning that is capable of explaining the effects of external factors such as temperature and pH value in the cell.

What did we do?

An immersive and interactive VR programme was developed to simulate "lock and key" model of enzymes. Students learning AAB20A Current Genetics experienced the VR learning at NTU Hive TR+35 where the latest VR infrastructure has been deployed. Students wore the VR headset to explore a virtual tour in the cell to witness where a polypeptide chain was produced and how it was assembled as an enzyme. After that, students entered a virtual biology laboratory to practice on the enzyme study by setting tuneable parameters and observe the outcome of enzyme activity.

What did students say?

The students were excited to have such a VR classroom experience. It was the first time experience of VR enabled learning for most of the students.

"The VR experience at HIVE was an eye-opening one for me. This is because I have never used VR and to be able to use it for something educational is something that I never thought was possible. After going through the lesson using VR, I feel that VR may be able to change the way teachers teach different concepts" – by Danial

"I felt that the VR experience in the Hive was extremely interesting, and really opened my mind of implementing technology into my classrooms in the future. I feel that VR can be an extremely useful tool in the future as it allows students to interact and have a closer view of several things that cannot normally be seen or interacted with." – by Fatin

"Students who are visual and technology-savvy learners will find this form of learning more engaging and meaningfulcompared to the conventional way to teaching and learning where the teacher will teach all the relevant content on PowerPoint slides and the students will just copy down notes on their slides." – by Teresa

Moving forward

Knowing the power of VR in biology education, Asst Prof Chen and A/P Cai are applying latest VR technologies in the construction of "virtual biology laboratory". They are developing smart phone applications that allow virtual display of lab scenarios with materials and instruments. Students will no longer conduct a lab protocol like a "cook book exercise". Instead, student may freely set their experiments virtually using a range of modified parameters and observe simulated outcome, thus to understand better how various factors work in a biological process and influence the output. Students will experience unprecedented immersive learning and expect the maximum learning outcomes from lab exercises. Importantly, such learning activities can take place anywhere and anytime as long as they have the device installed with the VR Apps, which eventually will reduce the reliance of labs, consumables, instruments, and supportive technical staff in biology lab exercises.

Read similar articles on the recent issue of Learning@NIE here