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Teaching molecular biology in virtual reality

Professor Lutz Eichacker took centre stage at the EdTech conference this week, demonstrating his project of using VR technology to take students inside molecules.

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EdTech was part of Stavanger’s Nordic Edge Expo 2017, the largest smart city event in the Nordics. University of Stavanger professor Lutz Eichacker was among the speakers selected to show the latest tools in educational technology.

Eichacker’s vision is to help students learn essential biochemistry concepts using virtual reality (VR).

«It is very difficult to understand molecular structures from the outside. There are many components to memorize, everything looks similar, and you still have to find specific components and relate them to each other in a three-dimensional space. Memorizing the position of a specific point in 3D is challenging, when looking at a molecule from outside. We typically try to use our imagination to create a 3D image, and it is no wonder that many students struggle to follow the teacher´s imagination», the professor explains.

Memorizing space

«With VR technology, you can get yourself a 3D picture from the inside of the molecule. You can walk around inside it. It makes learning so much easier, because you can use your natural ability again to memorize space. You can go in and out, as if you enter a room and find the components that you have seen before with ease. Then you can begin to work and learn about their function,» he says.

The project started with a chance meeting between the professor at CORE and Bizhan Zangiabadi, who works for a company called PaleBlue AS in the next building at iPark. PaleBlue use VR to make diving simulators, and Zangiabadi gave Eichacker a test ride.

«I thought: This is fantastic! I want to use this technology to walk inside the molecules!»

Big potential

Using datasets from biology databases, PaleBlue programmed the test version shown at EdTEch. Next semester, professor Eichacker will try it out on his biochemistry students at the university. The project has received financial support from the Faculty of Science and Technology.

Searching the academic literature, professor Eichacker has found only few papers showing similar attempts, and realized the potential for CORE (Centre for organelle research) to be innovators in this field.

«Our current version has shown that the concept works. I am convinced the technology has big potential to improve our capacity to learn and work. Not only for teaching, but also in many other fields like pharmacy, architecture, or the automobile industry»