September 2010

Virtual Reality in Science Education

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.

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A fascinating glimpse into what is available now and what is coming in short order - well done. Some notion of the start-up costs and how they could be phased in would also be helpful. Please do continue this as a series. Stan Scordilis - Smith College



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