How Virtual Reality Can Get More Students to Learn Biotechnology and Science

Anastasia Morozova
Anastasia Morozova
Chief Operating Officer

According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16% of high school seniors have proficiency in math and are interested in pursuing a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

And only half of those students actually decide to work in a related field.

Biotechnology, being one of such fields, also faces difficulties when it comes to the teaching process and sparking the interest of students.

Many educational reports say that for students it is boring to learn science the way it is traditionally taught right now.

And, from the biotechnology professor’s perspective, the standard educational process demands a lot of resources to research and conduct experiments in labs.

However, with virtual reality (VR) technologies, all those issues might no longer be that hard to solve.

VR can help students learn science in a more engaging and fascinating way. We will investigate how exactly professors can motivate students to learn and how the educational system can encourage more people to get into STEM courses using virtual reality.

But first, let’s see what the main challenges of biotechnology teaching are.

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The challenges of biotechnology teaching

1.   High cost of education

The report of Delta Cost Project at AIR  (American Institutes for Research) shows that the cost for the full attribution of STEM degrees (four years) is significantly higher ($65,000-$80,000) when compared to other fields.

As a result, students choose other fields that are often $10,000-$15,000 cheaper.

One of the reasons for that being the fact that STEM courses involve a lot of work in labs, which often are not that cheap to maintain (equipment, personnel, and supplies). However, that does not include Mathematics and Statistics that are more class-oriented.

To have a better idea, you can take a look at a short guide on how to estimate the laboratory cost in a high school prepared by the American society of professional estimators.

And if we’re talking about college-level labs, those require even more due to more complex studying activities.

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2. Location limitations

If you want to encourage more people to study your discipline, the laboratory itself is a quite substantial limiting factor.

Besides the theoretical part, biotechnology teaching is impossible without real experiments and practical lessons. Therefore, taking the course online can prove to be difficult.

Students must first get to the place, which is also scheduled tightly to make sure everyone gets enough practical experience. Then, they need to receive a briefing regarding the equipment usage and safety precautions. Hence, the lab time shrinks even more.

Additionally, there are such experiments that are too dangerous to conduct for educational purposes. For example, those that are connected with menacing viruses or bacteria.

Also, equipment tends to break. Often, labs do not have a replacement for some of the devices because of their high cost.

As a result, some of the experiments can be temporarily impossible to conduct, which can stall the educational process.

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3. Resource-intensiveness

Just getting the equipment is not enough. You need supplies and consumables for your lab to keep the experiments going.

Biotechnology, as the first part of the word implies, involves lots of work with biomaterial (plants and test animals).

Also, you have to have a full stock of flasks, glasses, labeling tape, parafilm, tubes for microcentrifuge, straining trays, storage boxes, foam racks, pipettes, and other labware.

And, of course, personnel. There should be somebody with sufficient competence to assist during the experiment, clean the laboratory and do regular maintenance.

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4. Many think science is boring

Unfortunately, many students when hearing the word “science” do not fire up with enthusiasm. They start thinking about formulas and equations right away, and that is not very exciting.

Yes, there are professors that try to sparkle the interest of their students and add creativity to their lessons. However, in most cases, the traditional ways of teaching cannot show how fascinating science can actually be.

A few years ago, BBC conducted a survey which suggested that more than 50% of teenagers think that science lessons are dull and too complicated.

Learning from a book can barely show them why the human genome is a miracle in itself or why it is so exciting that you can describe a complex motion of an object with a single equation.

But, most of those problems can be solved by virtual reality. Let’s take a closer look at the next use case that vividly demonstrates how VR applications help to teach biotechnology more engagingly and excitingly.

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Labster virtual laboratory

Labster is a Danish VR project founded by Mads Bonde, a biotechnology Ph.D. degree holder, and a university and high school teacher.

The primary goal of Labster VR project is to get students excited about science, help them learn faster, and convince those who believe that science cannot be fascinating otherwise.

Another problem they wanted to solve is that there often is no access to the latest equipment, and students cannot get the full experience of a particular experiment or use outdated methods.

As a result, a Labster’s virtual lab was created with two main objectives in mind:

  • Make the material more interesting to get more people motivated in studying.
  • Make laboratories more accessible for every student.

Their target audience includes not only students but also university professors who are seeking better teaching methods for STEM courses.

Some of the top universities (MIT, Harvard) have already started using their virtual labs and are receiving great results.

They do not confine a student only to the lab environment. The learning process is also supported by immersive storytelling.

For instance, DNA analysis principles are learned through a CSI lab simulation that lets students explore a VR crime scene and collect samples to analyze them in a laboratory. This investigation scenario allows for a more engaging and thus effective learning experience.

The Labster team believes that such a format of the education process in virtual reality can help universities breach the limitation barrier of practical labs and get more STEM courses online.

The high cost of STEM education might also be lowered since virtual reality labs do not require so many expenditures as the real ones.

The main usages of VR in biotechnology

Storytelling

Adding a story to the learning process can significantly raise the interest of students, especially when it is done in a VR environment.

It is one of the best solutions to the “science is boring” problem.

Whether it is a crime scene, space laboratory or post-apocalyptic bunker, bringing studying experience closer to a game-like activity increases the engagement level substantially and allows for a better connection with a younger generation.

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Visualize complex structures

When we look at an object of normal size (like a chair or a table), we can clearly see all its parts and imagine it without any problems later. However, it is not that easy when it comes to infinitesimal three-dimensional structures like genes or cells.

Scientists find it difficult to visualize cells or proteins and fully comprehend them having only 2D images from a microscope.

Example 1

Virtual reality can help with that like it helped the researchers at BRI.

They use the data from their microscopes to create 3D models of cells they are studying. The program is called ConfocalVR, and it is licensed for free non-profit usage.

The VR model is fully adjustable in terms of components, color, brightness, and view angles. Here is how everything looks in action:

Example 2

The Wyss Center and Senior Research Associate at the University of Geneva use a virtual reality system to visualize the brain.

Thanks to the heaps of data obtained via their high-performance light-sheet microscope, they can create a 3D model of a mouse brain and “step inside” of it.

This new visualization technology can hugely impact further neural research. Education-wise, it can give students a better perspective on the processes that are involved in brain activity.

Example 3

Another illustrative case is the collaboration of the team from the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, physicists from Universita’ di Napoli, and developers and artists at Goldsmiths, University of London.

They teamed up to visualize complex interactions between genes and their regulatory elements through virtual reality software.

They’ve combined that data from genome sequencing, DNA interactions, and microscopes to create an interactive 3D model that demonstrates how different regions of genome interact with one another and where they sit.

Now, with the help of VR tools, scientists can effectively combine massive amounts of data into interactive models to get a broader perspective on how things like human genome work.

The conclusion

VR technologies provide a great set of tools to help students learn biotechnology on a more interactive and engaging level.

It can give access to the latest labware and reduce the expenditures for supplies and consumables.

In virtual reality, you can experiment with dangerous bacteria or combustible materials with no risks. Also, you can forget about any worries about breaking anything or harming somebody by accident.

Failed an experiment? Press the “reset” button and start over! The number of iterations you can go through in virtual reality is not that limited as compared to real labs.

With VR, bringing biotechnology courses online becomes much easier because you can get into a highly advanced lab right from your living room.

Additionally, VR technology allows scientists to broaden their understanding of previously inadequately studied biological interactions on a microscopic level via detailed 3D models and virtual reality headsets.

If you need consultations regarding the virtual reality development in the field of Biotechnology, feel free to contact us at any convenient time.

We guarantee the best quality of your VR solution and will gladly help you in this endeavor.

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