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University of Alberta deploys VR app & Google Cardboard to enrich health science learning

University of Alberta's Cognitive Projections initiative develops engaging, easy-to-use virtual reality experiences to bring healthcare science subjects to life for students using Google Cardboard headsets.

Edmonton-based University of Alberta offers undergraduate and graduate programs covering a wide array of subjects, including healthcare sciences. Teaching their technologically-savvy students complex subjects such as anatomy and molecular biology with textbooks has increasingly challenged their professors. “For many students, cell behavior and interactions is difficult to grasp with only two-dimensional illustrations,” says Dr. Paul LaPointe, an Associate Professor in the Department of Cell Biology.

In search of a solution, the university’s Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory launched the Cognitive Projections initiative to explore new ways of teaching health sciences through augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Working with Dr. LaPointe as their content matter expert, the Cognitive Projections team developed the Cell 101 VR app and used Google Cardboard to share the content with students.

“We decided on Google Cardboard because it was cheap to supply to large classes,” notes Lucie Eliasova, the 3D artist for the Cognitive Projections initiative. “But also because it’s more affordable to run on students existing smartphones than the more expensive computing hardware that premium solutions require,” she adds.

Google Cardboard with a Google Pixel phone running the Cell 101 VR app

Google Cardboard with a Google Pixel phone running the Cell 101 VR app

Driving deeper absorption and engagement

“The challenge in [teaching healthcare science] is that many of the structures are multi-layered—from whole bodies down to molecules,” adds Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell, director of both the Cognitive Projections team and the Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory. “The ability to learn and retain information is greatly improved, however, with 3D visuals.”

Through the VR experience, they can examine dozens of 3D objects and animations depicting cellular anatomy and physiology—including things like insulin binding and the cell interior, nucleus, and nuclear pore—to gain a deeper understanding of complex cellular structures and concepts.

Instant engagement from the first class

In 2017, Eliasova and Dr. LaPointe demonstrated the Cell 101 VR app during a class lecture to introductory molecular biology students, who were asked several times to use their individual Google Cardboard headsets for a total VR-usage time of around 20 minutes.

“On more than one occasion, I had to tell students to put the headsets down and listen—it’s that engaging,” LaPointe reports. Not only were his students more engaged, there was also a noticeable reduction in student questions and faster absorption of more advanced subjects.

100% of students who participated in their survey reported that they enjoyed using the app, and the majority said they found it helpful in understanding key concepts.

Cell 101 VR app screenshot displaying a G protein coupled receptor signaling cascade

Cell 101 VR app screenshot displaying a G protein coupled receptor signaling cascade

Flipping the classroom for remote learning

Students also found the app compelling enough to use and share with others outside of the classroom. Many liked it so much that they showed it to friends who weren’t even taking the class (61%) and to people at home (59%).

That level of engagement makes the app useful for outside learning, too. LaPointe says VR can be an effective way to flip the classroom. “My long term goal is to have a comprehensive, chapter-by-chapter app that every student can use at home,” LaPointe says. “This will only help them learn faster and retain more.”

Looking ahead to more VR and AR

The university will continue using the Cell 101 VR app with Google Cardboard to teach molecular biology. The Cognitive Projections team has also produced similar VR apps to teach topics such as craniofacial anatomy, scoliosis, and how to give dental injections.

And they’re planning even more immersive and simulated applications using Daydream, Google’s platform for mobile VR, and ARCore, Google software for building AR applications. “We want to use the latter as a 3D overlay to existing textbook images,” Eliasova says. “We see VR as a wonderful way of deepening a student’s understanding, but also as a simulation application to reduce the eventual stress and anxiety of actually being in the medical field.”

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