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Building a mobile, virtual reality classroom

Going well beyond video chatting, University of Utah students dissect virtual animals.

Colleen Farmer, professor in the University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences, worked with the library and TLT to incorporate virtual reality into the anatomy class she’s teaching this spring.

For some classes, Zoom just doesn’t cut it. Students enrolled in labs typically work in close proximity and share the specimens they are dissecting. That’s why—while COVID-19 precautions are still in place—Dr. Colleen Farmer, Ph.D., will teach her biology students in the virtual world.

The J. Willard Marriott Library, in partnership with Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT) and the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah, have designed and built the U’s first off-site virtual reality (VR) laboratory for student use.

Farmer, a professor in the School for Biological Sciences, is teaching the course Biology 3665: Form, Function and Adaptation of Animals. Her students are using VR kits produced by the library and TLT to dissect the specimens they’re studying throughout the semester.

“In this particular class, students are looking at form and function in vertebrates,” said Farmer. “It’s so exciting to be using virtual reality to really make this an active learning experience, especially at this unique time when safety is of the utmost concern.”

What Farmer is talking about isn’t something that is easily described or illustrated in photographs or video.

“You really have to be looking through the headset to see the kind of extraordinary learning that goes on here,” said Farmer. “For example, when we dissect a dogfish in a traditional lab, there’s really only room for one person to be doing the dissecting while the other students huddle around to see what’s happening. Using the VR dissecting technique, every student has their own dogfish and they’re able to work with the specimen as long as they need—removing various organs, examining the vascular system and so on.”

Find a recording of their virtual classroom below, where students are dissecting an alligator.

“Being able to use accelerometers and virtual reality headsets to learn has been very neat,” said Russell Belt, a student in Farmer’s class. “Not only are we able to collaborate on virtual projects in real time, but I have been able to meet new people during the COVID pandemic as a result. That has proved very valuable in bolstering my educational experience at the University of Utah.”

Another powerful aspect of this approach is the use of a “multiplayer” platform where all of the students can be in the same virtual space with the instructor, seeing each other as a virtual head with a name displayed and sets of hands (wands) and talking with each other in real time. The students can “walk” around in the space to see the anatomy from different points of view and the instructor can use a laser pointer to draw attention to particular features. Students have the benefit of the student-student interactions of a regular classroom from the safety of their own home.

“We have made a few changes to the laptop specs to support the memory needed for this robust software,” said Tony Sams, new media projects specialist. “At the end of the day, we’ll have 40 laptop/headset packages for students to check out. These systems will take their learning to a whole new level.”

The VR kits include Realize Medical’s Elucis software. The modeling software is used to look at 3-D medical imaging in a collaborative, virtual environment. Each student has received an Oculus Quest 2, a Lenovo VR-ready laptop and specialized hardware to support course learning outcomes. After the spring semester, the VR kits will go into circulation as a mobile VR classroom to continue supporting the teaching, learning and research needs of departments across campus.

Funding for this project was provided by the CARES Act through the Utah Education Network.