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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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SDSU faculty tap virtual reality to bring subjects alive for students in the classroom and lab. Video editing: Soleil Sandoval-Colmenero; Narration: Martin Bridges

Virtual Reality: Immersive Learning In Class and the Lab

Faculty find creative ways to boost student engagement and research.
By Padma Nagappan

“In five years we’ll look back and wonder how we ever taught without these immersive learning tools.”

The skeleton takes a spin around the living room in Harsimran Baweja’s home, while the clinical neuroscientist and physical therapy professor teaches upperclassmen the intricacies of the human brain and nervous system for a neuroscience class. 

In biology, students manipulate the skull and different bones to get 360 degree views of human bones in Sandra Garver’s anatomy class, but they’re not in the lab — this is taking place via remote learning.

At San Diego State University Imperial Valley, students experiment with growing different combinations of plants in one plot of land to see how each species competes for resources in Jia Sun’s general biology class, but they’re indoors, logged on to Zoom.

Virtual reality (VR) makes this kind of hands-on learning possible at SDSU, and has helped boost student engagement by bringing lessons alive, especially over the last year of mostly virtual learning.

“I like to teach the way I would have liked to be taught,” Baweja said. “That’s the beauty of simulation. I don’t have to ask you to visualize what the heart looks like, I can show it to you. If professors are using this to teach, it’s difficult to hate the subject.”

Race cars, accidents and reaction patterns

Baweja is a pioneer of VR at SDSU who embraced it in his classes and research in 2014. 

His lab focuses on human behavior and movement disorders, studying how people react while driving and walking. The technology enables him to simulate various environments in the safety of his lab — reactions to distractions while driving, how the heart and brain might react during an accident, or how seniors respond to stimuli while walking which can help researchers prevent falls.

He has begun using VR to study reactions in race car drivers who take their powerful speed machines for a virtual spin in his lab. 

“Driving is a highly physical and emotional event, so as they take a tight turn at high speed they may be holding their breath which I will catch and tell them to breathe,” he said.

Baweja also teaches a cardiopulmonary therapy class where his students observe the beating heart, which he enlarges and rotates on his desk using a program called Complete Anatomy, then demonstrates the type of rehabilitation therapy that would be needed for someone recovering from a heart attack. 

It’s quite a departure from the blackboard and chalk and textbook images Baweja remembers his professors using. 

“Anatomy is a challenging subject and the pass/fail rate used to be 50% in my day, but now students love it. Immersive learning makes the subject come alive and helps them better absorb it.”

An allergy to formaldehyde in cadavers

Biology lecturer Garver began her career using cadavers and anatomy specimens preserved in formaldehyde to teach human anatomy to students  pre-med, pre-nursing and exercise and nutritional sciences majors. After nearly 13 years of teaching in anatomy labs, when she suddenly developed a severe allergy to the formaldehyde, she had to find a way to teach the hands-on class without entering a lab. 

“I thought there had to be a better way to teach anatomy without using actual human bones,” said Garver, who retired in December after 24 years at SDSU.

That quandary led to consultations with SDSU’s Instructional Technology Services (ITS), and the discovery of photogrammetry — the process of 3D scanning using an array of 2D photos. She eventually settled on using AgiSoft software to create 3D scans of hundreds of images that students accessed through SketchFab, a database where they could rotate each image and study it in detail. 

What started out as an alternative to allergies has led to some unexpected but welcome benefits. Previously, her students had to make time each week to study the bones in the lab, typically on Fridays. But now, they’re able to do this on their own time, from the comfort of their homes, at night or over the weekend. 

“I never realized how much fun this would be and I never considered myself a digital expert. We can do wet preps with a heart or an eye, we can label parts or test students with unlabeled images,” Garver said. “This should be an open educational resource so many more people can take advantage of it.  And students love it because it gives them the freedom to learn when they want to, while still getting a realistic feel for bones.”

Plant biology during virtual learning

Sun joined SDSU Imperial Valley in fall 2020 and had to quickly adapt his biology classes to an online format.

He is pilot testing Labster, a lab platform that enables him to give students a virtual experience of what it would be like to choose different plant species, go out in the field and greenhouse to plant them in various combinations, and observe how they compete and survive with limited resources and under different environmental conditions.

“My first semester at SDSU has been transformed by the pandemic,” Sun said. “Since we could not have a wet lab, we pivoted to Labster to simulate a lab environment.”

Using the program, students populate a plot with plants in different proportions,  then fast forward to harvest season and measure how yield differs for each combination of plants. 

“One of the upsides of this is that it makes the lessons so much more interesting for students,” Sun said. “I find they stay engaged and interact more. They also like the instant gratification of learning the end results on an accelerated timeline.”

ITS facilitates and expands VR uses

The beauty of virtual and augmented reality is that it can be adapted to all types of classes, small and big, and a wide range of subjects. And it can act as an equalizer.

“Student engagement is one of the most challenging aspects of remote learning, and virtual reality helps students better engage,” said Sean Hauze, ITS director. “Our early VR collaborations with faculty paved the way for rapid transitions during the pandemic. It helps students overcome disparities in access, and challenges in space and time.”

In the next few years, through the Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) initiative, ITS will scale this technology across campus. It’s also tapping grant funding from the CSU Chancellor’s office to create a library of VR resources that will offer open source access to more than 400,000 students across 23 CSU campuses, as well as other campuses.

ITS is also reimagining the boundaries of this platform by developing an immersive tool called the Empathy Lens, which will enable users to experience what it’s like to be a minority job candidate facing an interview panel, so hiring committees and others learn to recognize and avoid implicit bias and microaggressions in their interactions.

“In five years we’ll look back and wonder how we ever taught without these immersive learning tools,” said James Frazee, associate vice president of ITS. “The pandemic represents a massive change accelerator, and has brought us five years ahead in less than 12 months.”