Virtual Reality as a Teaching Tool

Project Owner

  • Pauline Ross (Natural Sciences Professor of Biology and Educational Strategy School of Life and Environmental Sciences)
  • Philip Poronnik (Professor of Biomedical Sciences, School of Medical Sciences)
  • Dale Hancock (Senior Lecturer, School of Life and Environmental Sciences)

Project Credits

  • Jim Cook (ICT, TechLab)
  • Chris Hammang (Biomedical Animator & Educational Designer)
  • Philip Poronnik ((Professor of Biomedical Sciences, School of Medical Sciences)
  • Weber Liu (Student)
  • Eric Jiang (Student)

Start Date

20th July 2017


The course ran Semester 2, 2017. The research project will run for 2017, 2018 and 2019 throughout each semester.

Problem Statement

An exciting but as yet little investigated area is the use of VR/AR for visualizing and understanding the interaction of molecules. Because we have the crystal structures of many proteins they can be visualized in various programs to research how they interact with other proteins – software often used by researchers include Pymol and Jmol. However, there are not many studies that investigate how effective VR might be in providing a deeper understanding of molecular structures, either from a research or educational perspective.

Final Brief

In this project, first year biology students will learn how to import proteins from the protein data base into Blender, a widely used and free animation package. Students learn some basics about texturing, lighting and animation to create their own molecular animation. Additionally, they then learn how to export their proteins into Unity, an industry standard game engine and from there, view and move proteins around in Virtual Reality using the Oculus Rift.

Students were tasked to compare standard 2D representations of their proteins with the VR experience and discuss if

  1. this was an effective learning experience
  2. they think that they now have a better understanding of molecular interactions

This was a very exciting world-first student project that provided students with the basics of some very important digital literacy skills, which are becoming highly valued by employers. We have entered the start of an age where VR/AR will be ubiquitous and students newfound understanding of the VR workflow will give them an excellent foundation to understanding and using this technology.

We have provided similar frameworks for second and third year undergraduate units, as well as second year postgraduate units in the Science and Medicine.

We have also begun a longitudinal research project to attempt to discuss efficacy. The research will be conducted on students who take one of three courses in first, second and their year Science undergraduate course with varied cohort sizes (n= 80 to 1000). The research takes the form of semi-structured interviews and questionnaires, after students have undertaken a learning experience.

Challenges & Learnings

  • C1. A significant amount of planning went into the unit. We began discussions eighteen months prior, and based our design on a VR environment that the TechLab had demonstrated at the Academy of Sciences in 2015.
  • L1. The key learning is that it is beneficial to have an extended time to design and plan such a learning experience.
  • C2. Students weren’t immediately aware of what this had to do with their Physiology, Medical Science or Biology degree. The explanation of scaffolding digital literacies was hard to convey as some first year students expected a concentrated biology class.
  • L2. More information about both research participation and the emergence of industry X.0 for the students will better prepare them for undertaking varied and more adventurous styles of learning.

Languages / Framework

Blender, Oculus, C#, Unity

Links to Resources

Chris’ training Video

Assessment outline - Canvas

Research project