Interview: Dr. Ulrich Krauss on virtual reality in science education

July 6, 2022

Dr. Ulrich Krauss is a microbiologist and group leader at the Institute of Molecular Enzyme Technology (IMET) of the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf (HHU) / Forschungszentrum Jülich. He is the Principal Investigator leading IMET’s molecular biophotonics research group, which studies the working principles that govern the structure and function of multidomain proteins such as photoreceptors and enzymes. 

At the end of 2021, Ulrich and IMET Director Prof. Karl-Erich Jaeger received funding for a new project through HHU’s Digi-Fellowship program. The project, ​​ "Social Presence in E-Learning: Integrating Collaborative Virtual Reality into Distance Education", seeks to integrate collaborative virtual reality into science education, with the goal of eventually making distance learning more interactive and collaborative. ResearchGate’s Elyse Franko-Filipasic checked in with Dr. Krauss to talk about the concept of this project, his motivations for establishing it, and the use of this technology in STEM learning. 

Dr. Ulrich Krauss

Elyse Franko-Filipasic (EFF): What motivated you to start this project? 

Ulrich Krauss (UK): The project was born out of the frustration we all faced with remote teaching during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I had, for instance, around 30 students in a Zoom meeting, and nobody was switching on their cameras or interacting. At that point, we thought about whether it was possible to teach in a more interactive and immersive way. Also, due to the pandemic, I was playing around with VR devices to meet people in virtual rooms and talk with friends back home. That´s when the idea of using social VR to teach science was born. I checked for funding opportunities, and luckily found the Digi-Fellowship program, through which HHU Düsseldorf provides an annual grant for innovative e-learning projects on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Science in Nordrhein-Westfalen. So we applied for it and finally got some money to work on this project.  

What we want to do in this project is, on the one hand, implement these methods in distance teaching. This means we would have students at home with headsets on, meet in a virtual room, and give regular lectures. This would enable them to provide presentations and other things that people would typically do in regular teaching, remotely in a virtual space. On the other hand, we want to use the unique features of these systems to look at things in a stereoscopic three-dimensional way and illustrate complex three-dimensional systems like proteins, all in a collaborative way, of course.

EFF: One component of your project gives students the opportunity to examine highly magnified protein structures up close using VR. Did you design this virtual world as well?  

UK: The software we use isn’t made by us, it is commercially available. So these VR software tools are already available, and in the project, we are exploring the possibilities that these tools offer for distance learning. At the same time, we also strive to implement simple, open-source, web-based tools that allow viewing protein structures in VR.

EFF: Do the students work with their VR headsets from home or are you testing this in the classroom? 

UK: Both. So far, we just tried it with several students in one room, talking normally without the audio connection of the headset. But the goal is also to do it remotely and hand out these headsets to the students so they can sit at home and meet up for these sessions. 

EFF: Are there any results or feedback that you can report so far?

UK: Yes, many undergraduate students liked the experience and were impressed with what you can do nowadays with these tools. Looking at protein structures in 3-D is much more immersive than just looking at them on a flat computer screen. At one moment you can hold the protein in your hand and in the next, you can make it as big as a house and virtually "step" into the active site of the enzyme. Currently, we are in a phase of setting up everything and trying out all the possibilities, so we cannot tell how well this works in a regular teaching setting, but right now, people are pretty happy to test it and be part of it. Of course, at the end of the project, we will evaluate all of these aspects.

EFF: It sounds like this project was largely started due to the remote teaching conditions we experienced due to COVID-19. Do you see this project still being useful or able to scale without pandemic conditions? Or what applications would you see for it?

UK: There was also a massive boost in VR technology during the pandemic because many people had to sit at home. Therefore, doing something and meeting up in a virtual space became interesting to many people. However, it is hard to predict if this will continue. 

With regard to the 3D software tools that we use right now; you can use these to do all kinds of things, such as plan mutations and look at the interactions within these molecules, design inhibitors, etc, the possibilities are virtually endless. The ability to view and interact with three-dimensional content in this way is really valuable even in non-remote settings. I am confident that we can use these tools also in the future, and more and more people are already doing so (for drug design purposes, for example). I'm not sure whether we will still do remote VR lectures a couple of years from now, but at least we know it is possible.

Apart from university teaching, we also wanted to invite other researchers to give a presentation on this software. For instance, I have a colleague in another German city who is an expert in protein molecular dynamics. Instead of using a traditional presentation, this colleague could teach and show us things remotely and more immersively in VR. This is also an aspect we want to explore, whether we can use this software for scientific collaboration outside of formal university education.

EFF: What is your vision for using this kind of technology in STEM learning?

UK: We will for sure implement what we learn within this project in our regular coursework. On what scale and in which form will, of course, depend on how things will develop pandemic-wise, teaching-wise, and also funding-wise because of course implementing this on a larger scale requires some resources: you need the headsets, software, etc. I mean, it would be cool if such headsets would be available from the university; for example, if you could rent them or borrow them from the library. This might become possible in the future if the prices for VR equipment go down, but with more and more people using them privately, and companies investing huge sums of money into the metaverse, I believe they will. 

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