URI students augment their lab learning with virtual apps
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URI students augment their lab learning with virtual apps

Sep 02, 2023

Collaborative app library builds student knowledge at URI, and beyond

KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 31, 2023 – At the University of Rhode Island, students in biomedical science classes are boosting their learning with new virtual and augmented reality applications. The collaborative effort was recently featured in a paper published in Biotechniques. The apps are also available for learning beyond URI.

The apps are the result of a collaboration between URI’s, ITS – Innovative Learning Technologies program, the 3D Science Visualization Teaching program, and the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (RI-INBRE) Molecular Informatics Core (MIC).

They already have a track record of success creating short video clips illustrating how drugs work at the molecular and cellular levels.

Virtual Rx

The first app developed focused on a medicine many of us are familiar with: aspirin. The app offers a virtual museum of aspirin, in five rooms: introduction, its precursor salicylic acid as a natural product, history and development, applications and alternatives, and pharmacology and biochemistry.

The well-known anticancer drug methotrexate (MTX) is another app subject. Students using the app can see how the drug targets a component enzyme, allowing experimentation with molecular animations and interactive quizzes that provide users with a detailed look at drug actions and a better understanding of the drug’s anticancer activity. The app was used in URI’s oncology classes, so that pharmacy students could visualize the drug’s complex molecular interactions and biochemical processes to better understand its anticancer effects.

“This immersive and interactive experience helps students grasp the spatial arrangements and structural features that dictate drug action,” says Bongsup Cho, director of INBRE. “The VR apps can also create a ‘Wow 3D’ factor, enabling students to see how drug effects unfold at a cellular level, which might be challenging to convey using traditional teaching methods.”

Programming success

While the apps are deployed by students in URI’s pharmacy programs, they were created by a team of computer science undergraduates with faculty and staff oversight. The apps turned out to be particularly useful during the pandemic when the school switched to remote learning.

Stephen R. Szpak, Jr. ’23 , a recent chemical engineering (pharmaceutical track) graduate, was a beta tester for the new software. “Virtual/augmented reality is a great addition to classroom settings as it is a way to get a sort of ‘hands-on’ experience before ever stepping into a lab,” he says. “It can supplement lecture-style learning and help develop lab safety knowledge and experimental techniques before using fragile and expensive materials and machines. Being a visual learner myself, the ability to see the creation of nanoparticles play out before me in the virtual space with built-in learning checkpoints was fantastic.”

Lab time

Jyothi Menon, associate professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences / chemical engineering, came up with an app for cell culture, an important laboratory technique that is being increasingly implemented across various disciplines from biotechnology to virology. But there are barriers to providing hands-on training on aseptic cell culture techniques: insufficient workspaces to train large numbers of students, high cost, the difficulty of containing cell culture contamination, and time-intensive training.

The app mimics a modern cell culture laboratory enabling students to learn techniques in a safe environment before transitioning to wet lab training.

Much of the virtual laboratory equipment is interactive (e.g., pipettes can take and expel liquids, cabinets can be opened and closed, containers opened, etc.). Interactive quizzes test students’ knowledge as they proceed through the simulations.

“Virtual and augmented reality applications enable us to train students in a virtual cell culture laboratory where they will learn essential laboratory skills and interact with the equipment used,” she says. “This training enhances student competency so they can easily transition to hands-on experimentation in the laboratory.”

As students are familiar with the technology, the non-graded programs help build their comfort level around the topics in a fun and familiar space.

“We tried to keep it interactive,” says the RI-INBRE MIC Director Christopher Hemme, “giving students the chance to act, to make things happen.”

The student app designers worked creatively to make the apps both user-friendly and scientifically sound. In their first iterations of the apps, publicly available 3D models for in-app objects were used, but this was not always ideal, as the models for scientific instruments were often inaccurate or “cartoony.” URI’s student programmers could do better and created scientifically accurate content, approved by faculty, to simulate “real” scientific laboratories.

“This generation is open to multiple ways of learning and accessing information,” Hemme says. “The biochemistry remains the same, but additional tools help. Students will understand more, if we explain it right.”

Overall feedback from students regarding the apps has been very positive.

In pre-surveys for the MTX app, for instance, half (52%) of the students about to experience the VR simulation thought it might help them learn MTX’s mechanisms. This number increased dramatically (to 96%) in the app’s post-survey, showing students dramatically built their confidence in understanding MTX’s anticancer action in just one of the apps offered.

Also offered are applications for Diuretics, Nanotech (Nanoparticles and Liposomes), and Natural Products. An app for URI’s Medicinal Garden in augmented reality form is also pending.

The paper has already been downloaded more than 800 times since publication and Hemme and Roy Bergstrom from URI ITS – Innovation Services will present a demonstration of the apps at the Educause annual conference in October, which showcases top thinking in higher education technology.

The team says these apps not only help URI students master their course content, but they are also vital for outreach to the larger Rhode Island community, such as visiting middle and high school students interested in STEM topics or prospective College of Pharmacy students. The team hopes to expand the scope of apps available to other colleges at URI and to other institutions in the RI-INBRE network.

Virtual RxProgramming successLab time