Is this the new era of classroom learning?

Rou-Jia Sung and Andrew Wilson have developed a new augmented reality app.

5 February 2019 Posted In:
Image of a student using the BiochemAR app on an iPad.
Image of a student using the BiochemAR app on an iPad.Photo: Rou-Jia Sung

A new app developed at Carleton College is being recognized for integrating augmented reality technology into the classroom to enhance student learning. The feat highlights a slow shift in the educational model of a classroom, both at Carleton and beyond.

Show, don’t tell

The app, coined BiochemAR and created by assistant professor of biology Rou-Jia Sung and academic technologist Andrew Wilson, made headlines in The Scientist for addressing a problem that biology instructors and students face: how do we visualize and understand complex 3D biological molecules that are invisible to the naked eye?

Traditionally, 2D representations in textbooks have been used to illustrate these biological macromolecules. However, like assembling furniture using only a set of instructional drawings, often times students struggle to visualize the 3D features of the structure and therefore understand the important functions of the molecule.

Using augmented reality, BiochemAR effectively visualizes the structure of the potassium channel, one of the important molecules of the cells in our body. With the app, students can freely and independently move around the hologram while still discussing and interacting with each other.

“I think being able to see what something looks like in real life is really important for learning,” Sung said.

Informative, but user-friendly

The app’s ease of use is another great advantage. Interactive 3D models of such molecules have been available through select software programs on the computer, but were difficult to use for both the instructors and students.

That’s because upon opening files containing the structural information of the molecules, these programs would display the default representation of the molecule—a representation that Sung calls “a whole bunch of sticks.” The user then has to make complicated technical decisions about the model to make it useful. That means for students, and even for many instructors, this technology has been largely inaccessible.

That’s why Sung, who has a background in structural biology, decided to step in.

“The idea is to [develop an app] that is easier to use and more approachable,” she said.

By simply scanning a QR code on a smartphone, the app displays a color-coded visualization that is unique in its combination of user-friendliness and practicality. In her own classes, the app sparked excitement from the students.

“The app is a cool way to visualize and explore the structure of the potassium channel,” senior chemistry major and biochemistry minor Kallinikos Chalvatzis ’19 (Greece) said. “Actually seeing the different subunits that comprise the pump and how those come together in 3D space reinforced my understanding of its biochemical and physiological function.”

Sung added that the app is a platform for students that is both informative and enjoyable.

“Having an educational tool that’s also fun is a nice bonus,” she said.

Collaborating with academic technology

While Sung had insights into the content and function of the app, she needed a technology expert to consult with who could actually code the program. Upon arriving from Pomona College in the summer of 2017, she took immediate advantage of the close-knit connection between Carleton’s faculty and its technology staff.

“[Sung] and I started working on this project pretty much as soon as she got here,” Wilson, Carleton’s inaugural academic technologist for digital scholarship, said.

The first version of the program was developed during the summer and fall of 2017. Upon testing the functionality and usability with Sung’s fall term biochemistry class, various updates were made. The two worked closely in this capacity for over a year, before testing the program one last time with another class this past fall. After some more tweaking, the app was published in December 2018.

Sung thinks of the app as a fruit of the cross-disciplinary collaboration that characterizes a place like Carleton.

“[Our work] is really a product of liberal arts,” she said.

Going forward, Sung and Wilson are hoping to add more visualizations of different molecules to the app in addition to the currently available potassium channel model.

Other applications of AR in education

BiochemAR and its application in the classroom point toward a larger trend transforming various industries, including higher education: the rise of augmented reality.

The potential advantages that augmented reality technology brings to education are vast. AR has the potential to integrate advanced technology into classroom learning while preserving the more traditional interactions between the students and instructor. Unlike its more widespread sibling virtual reality, in which the learning experience is completely independent and disconnected from one another, augmented reality allows for multiple students to collectively see and interact with the same hologram, enabling collaboration and discussion.

“The possibilities are endless,” said Wilson, who holds a doctorate in computational methods in archaeology. “For example, using AR, it’s possible to project a 3D model of a historical artifact or an archaeological site in the middle of the classroom. Students would be able to walk around it, zoom into and out of it, and be able to discuss what they see.”

At Carleton and beyond

It is interesting to note that Wilson’s current position at Carleton, academic technologist for digital scholarship, did not exist before his arrival to the college in 2016. The creation of such a position is indicative of the college’s increasing attention to the integration of cutting-edge technology into the classroom learning experience.

This trend, however, is not unique to Carleton.

According to Forbes, Goldman Sachs estimates that around $700 million will be invested in AR/VR applications in education by 2025, on simulations for everything from forklift operations to architecture to invasive surgery. Gartner projects that 60% of all higher education institutions in America will be using virtual reality in the classroom by 2021.

Nevertheless, not everyone buys the hype. Skeptics express concerns about losing traditional classroom education methods, psychological and ethical issues, and an overall lack of funding in higher education as some potential deal breakers for such technologies to be in mainstream use.

Yet, in the midst of this rapidly changing landscape, Wilson remains confident in Carleton and its ability to spread digital scholarship.

“In terms of integrating technology into academics,” he said, “we are pretty far ahead in the game right now.”

In any case, the transformation of the traditional model of education appears to be an undeniable reality.

BiochemAR is currently free and available for iOS on iPad and iPhone from the Apple store and for Android from Google Play.