By Dr. Maria T. Gallardo-Williams
Back in the summer of 2016, a colleague of mine sent me a link to a virtual reality (VR) documentary that he had produced, featuring a local artist (1). The documentary included a visit to the artist’s studio. I remember looking in every direction while wearing a VR helmet and being amazed at the realism and immediacy of the experience. I felt as if I could reach and touch everything. I felt as if the artist was right there in the room with me, and I started to think what it would be like to do this in a lab. What if we could put our best TA in our best lab and create an experience like this one, but for chemistry? That is how the organic chemistry VR project at NC State got started.
For most scientists, being in the lab is a defining experience, and any idea that reduces the amount of time that students spend on hands-on lab work is summarily rejected. The way to get this project started and funded was to show that some students are unable to be in the lab, for a variety of reasons: pregnancy, military deployment, temporal or permanent disabilities, to name a few. With this in mind and the support of a diverse team from DELTA we set out to produce a set of VR labs for organic chemistry.
Our first lab took a whole year. Not only did we have to produce the content, which we sourced from students and TAs, but also we had to solve a whole host of technical issues. Some of the things we wanted in our VR labs had never been done before. The first person point of view approach that we decided on required that the labs were filmed with a camera right in front of the actor’s face. Creating a flat whiteboard display inside a curved VR environment was very challenging. However, we kept going, and were able to test our first VR lab in 2018.
The student response to our pilot test was overwhelmingly positive. Results indicated that there were no significant differences in learning outcomes between the students that viewed the VR simulation and a control group that attended a traditional lab. This indicated the possibility of using this tool to offer this organic chemistry lab experiment via distance education. Students that tried the VR experience reported a high degree of satisfaction with the product and no significant usability barriers.
When the COVID-19 disruption happened, we had been offering the Organic Chemistry I lab as a distance education class on a very limited basis, exclusively for students that were not able to be present in a traditional lab. Once the stay at home orders were issued, none of our students or instructors could be in the lab, and we realized that we had a product that could be used to finish the semester without diminishing the quality of the educational opportunities offered to our students. Since these materials were created as an open access resource (2), we were able to share them with other institutions. As of this summer there are 20 universities using our VR organic chemistry labs as part of their online course offerings.