MolgenVR (short for ‘molecular genetics VR’) is a virtual reality environment that transports students into a virtual E. coli bacterium to explore gene regulation. The cluster of genes at the center of the simulation is known as the lac operon, which allows the bacteria to use lactose as an energy source.

Developed with Unity 3D for the HTC Vive, students complete lac operon gene sequence by throwing (equivalent to “dragging-and-dropping”) genes in the DNA strand. They make copies of the genes (i.e., mRNA) and translate them into proteins. Students identify regulatory molecules (e.g., lac repressor) and their function, and make predictions about the efficacy of the system under various conditions (e.g., high glucose levels).

As educators, we are recognizing the potentially transformative power of immersive virtual reality (VR) not just as a motivator to engage students, but also as a means to expose learners to places inaccessible for the majority of students. By “shrinking” students to the inside of a cell, they can directly observe complex processes and manipulate molecular structures key to understanding gene regulation.

A common issue reported by researchers is that cognitive overload in VR can hinder learning. By analyzing physiological signals (e.g., skin conductance, temperature, eye gaze)—we learn when VR is effective for student learning and in turn, how to better design virtual reality experiences for learning.

MolgenVR was co-designed with faculty from Carleton University for students in Introduction to Microbiology. Despite employing active learning strategies (e.g., peer instruction, “clicker” questions) in the lecture-based course, a previous cohort of undergraduate students had difficulties understanding certain concepts. In our study, we found that students who participated in VR sessions demonstrated significantly better learning and course outcomes compared to students in the course as originally designed, which illustrates the potential for VR to support other University science courses.

Postdoctoral Research

My current research examines the design of virtual reality (VR) simulations for supporting complex conceptual understanding. Through a gene regulation simulation co-designed with a biology instructor, I investigate how sensorimotor engagement and students’ individual characteristics can influence learning within an undergraduate biology course. By developing a novel approach for analyzing continuous physiological signals (e.g., skin conductance, temperature, eye gaze) with analyses of multimodal data, my findings demonstrate that positive experiences are a function of whole-body movement and prior domain knowledge.

Publications & Presentations

  1. Lui, M., McEwen, R., Mullally, M. (in press). Immersive virtual reality for supporting complex scientific knowledge: Augmenting our understanding with physiological monitoring. British Journal of Educational Technology.
  2. McEwen, R. & Lui, M., (2019, June 7-8). Perception & learning in virtual reality [Invited presentation]. In M. Matthen & M. Barkasi (Chairs), Experiencing What’s Not There Workshop, Department of Philosophy, Network for Sensory Research, University of Toronto.
  3. Lui, M., Mullally, M., & McEwen, R. (2019, June-3-4). Virtual reality, perception & learning: The role of sensorimotor systems in cognition [Conference presentation]. Supporting Active Learning & Technological Innovation in Studies of Education Conference (SALTISE), Montreal, Canada.