September 2010

Virtual Reality in Science Education


Technology is becoming more widespread in education, from virtual lecture halls and laboratories to islands in online worlds. Here, Nick Zagorski explores three examples of some innovative approaches to integrate technology into science teaching. (Titled "In Science Education, the Reality Is Virtual" in print version.)


There was a time, not too long ago, when all you needed to teach a science course was a piece of chalk. However, even the staid lecture halls of universities aren’t immune to technology’s relentless advance, particularly in computing and online applications, and the past several years have seen many institutions incorporate modern technologies into the teaching environment. Below are just three examples of some innovative approaches to integrate technology into science teaching, highlighting the fact that, with today’s tools, virtually anything is possible.

Two Houses, One Home

Scripps professor Michael Kalichman lectures to his class in California, as well as students at the Florida campus seen on the board on the left, using an interactive whiteboard (smartboard) which can also be configured to display video content when necessary. 

When San Diego’s Scripps Research Institute was setting up its campus in Jupiter, Fla., a few years back, its founders wanted to make sure their new endeavor would not be perceived as a second-class satellite center; Scripps Florida was an expansion of this renowned institution, just one that was situated across the country, as opposed to across the street.

Of particular importance was trying to make the Florida students feel a bicoastal connection, so, Scripps set out to provide them access to the courses available in California.

The institute fitted the principal lecture halls on each campus with multiple digital cameras and projectors to allow students in one room to watch the proceedings in the other room in real time.

Curt Wittenberg, who oversees Scripps’ first-year molecular biology course, which has been at the forefront of using the new technology, notes it has been an interesting adaptation process.

“Right around the time we began implementing the technology, we also were switching the class from a lecture to discussion-type format,” he says. “Combine that with the fact that this course is team-taught, and each member has his or her own degree of affinity for the technology, it made for an interesting transition.”

The early years were more adventurous, as the hookup initially only allowed passive viewing; thus, if a student in Florida had a question, they had to type it via instant messenger to a teaching assistant in California who would then relay it to the professor.

Today, the virtual lecture halls are a technophile’s dream. A professor can see and hear both sets of students (he or she controls the camera remotely at the podium), and Scripps even has added SMART boards (digital whiteboards), which allow teachers to include interactive visual aids.

Recently, Scripps also has adapted the systems to behave as a virtual conference room for use in seminar courses and journal clubs. Projecting the classroom on the opposite coast on the screen in the front of the room creates the illusion that the room extends twice as far; and, with picture-in-picture technology, the students can display graphs or figures as they discuss their journal papers.

“It’s certainly different from when we faculty were students,” Wittenberg says, “But, we’ve managed to adapt pretty quickly, and it’s a fun and innovative way to make our two campuses feel like one.”

A Holiday in Lab


Jessell: HHMI investigator Thomas Jessell gives a live demonstration of the electrical activity in his biceps and triceps during his 2008 Holiday Lecture.

No matter what the actual content, the word “lecture” is not particularly attractive. For Dennis Liu, program director for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute annual Holiday Lecture series— in which some of HHMI’s top investigators speak to high school teachers and students— a way to spice up the lectures was to make them part of a bigger package.

“I’m a self-professed science explainer,” he says. “Back when I was in academia, I never minded writing papers or grants; that was kind of fun. But what always jazzed me the most was trying to explain some obscure or esoteric concept, particularly in a one-on-one setting.”

“So, back in the 1990s, when we thought about how to make the Holiday series more engaging, we realized there was this great new media called the Web,” he continues. “So, we set out to design companion resources that would help explain each lecture topic further.”

Although early efforts were limited to creating online teacher guides, over time, Liu and his small production team began incorporating animations, video clips and activity ideas that students could interact with before, during and after each talk. Soon, all of the online “goodies” evolved into HHMI’s Biointeractive website, providing a great educational resource year-round.

Among the site’s many features, one of the most innovative might be the award-winning “virtual lab” series, developed by Liu and staff member Satoshi Amagai.

The virtual labs offer fully interactive biomedical simulations, which help students visualize and appreciate key scientific techniques, without dealing with some of the tediousness and repetition involved in real benchwork.

“The point of these labs is verisimilitude,” Liu explains. “We don’t want to tell students exactly how to make an SDS-PAGE gel, just have them realize it’s a wonderful tool to separate proteins based on size.”

However, although the virtual labs do offer many advantages to educators— they’re easy, free, have built-in assessments and make it easy to track student compliance— Liu notes he doesn’t see them as replacements for the real thing; however, in schools that don’t have any lab infrastructure, the virtual labs make decent substitutes.

Currently, this online series features five simulations: bacterial identification, cardiology, neurophysiology, immunology and how to make transgenic flies. Liu and his team already are planning for the 2010 Holiday lecture in December, though, and a new high-pressure liquid chromatography simulation may be on the virtual horizon.

Science’s Second Coming

Our intrepid ASBMB avatar learns about DNA base-pairing and replication at Genome Island, one of the many science-themed virtual environments in Second Life.

Virtual lectures and virtual labs are one thing, but virtual worlds take the immersive, interactive experience to a whole new level. And, for those interested in science, the place to be is the SciLands continent in the Second Life world.

Have you ever thought about talking a stroll on the Martian surface? Or maybe flying through a hurricane after you’ve helped Gregor Mendel examine his pea plants? SciLands can make that happen.

Once the domain of text-based chat rooms and message boards, visually based online communities have gained momentum as meeting places for like-minded individuals seeking a little escape from their immediate surroundings. Though such worlds principally have been geared toward massive online games like World of Warcraft, virtual communities designed for social and educational activity also are popular.

One of the most popular social destinations is Second Life, developed in 2003. Like other platforms of its kind, Second Life offers individuals a chance to create an alter ego, or avatar, and explore a virtual community, created and updated by the user population, where events range from the mundane to the exotic.

The educational appeal of Second Life, especially in the sciences, was apparent quickly; with just a modicum of programming and scripting skills, users could develop virtual exhibits that could replicate experiments that might be too risky, expensive or time-consuming in real life, all packaged in a colorful game-like environment that encourages learning and is accessible from any Internet connection.


As a result, many universities and science organizations developed “lands” in second life, and many of them got together eventually and formed a region dedicated to science and technology, called SciLands.

For example, one can visit Genome Island, developed by Texas Wesleyan University professor Mary Anne Clark, and try various fun activities, such as crossing pea plants, looking at X-linked inheritance in a cat colony and carrying out a bacterial transformation.

And, Clark recently taught a fully in-world genetics course for nonmajors to examine the applicability of this teaching approach, which combines the convenience of online learning with the social interaction of a traditional small-class setting.

Nick Zagorski ( is a science writer at ASBMB.

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