University of Alberta deploys VR app & Google Cardboard to enrich health science learning

University of Alberta's Cognitive Projections initiative develops engaging, easy-to-use virtual reality experiences to bring healthcare science subjects to life for students using Google Cardboard headsets.

Edmonton-based University of Alberta offers undergraduate and graduate programs covering a wide array of subjects, including healthcare sciences. Teaching their technologically-savvy students complex subjects such as anatomy and molecular biology with textbooks has increasingly challenged their professors. “For many students, cell behavior and interactions is difficult to grasp with only two-dimensional illustrations,” says Dr. Paul LaPointe, an Associate Professor in the Department of Cell Biology.

In search of a solution, the university’s Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory launched the Cognitive Projections initiative to explore new ways of teaching health sciences through augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Working with Dr. LaPointe as their content matter expert, the Cognitive Projections team developed the Cell 101 VR app and used Google Cardboard to share the content with students.

“We decided on Google Cardboard because it was cheap to supply to large classes,” notes Lucie Eliasova, the 3D artist for the Cognitive Projections initiative. “But also because it’s more affordable to run on students existing smartphones than the more expensive computing hardware that premium solutions require,” she adds.

Driving deeper absorption and engagement

“The challenge in [teaching healthcare science] is that many of the structures are multi-layered—from whole bodies down to molecules,” adds Dr. Martin Ferguson-Pell, director of both the Cognitive Projections team and the Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory. “The ability to learn and retain information is greatly improved, however, with 3D visuals.”

Through the VR experience, they can examine dozens of 3D objects and animations depicting cellular anatomy and physiology—including things like insulin binding and the cell interior, nucleus, and nuclear pore—to gain a deeper understanding of complex cellular structures and concepts.

Organization Profile

Founded in 1908, University of Alberta is a large public research university located in Edmonton, Canada. With an academic and administrative staff of more than 15,000, the university teaches more than 32,235 undergraduates and nearly 7,700 graduate students per year. The Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory (home to the Cognitive Projections initiative) is part of the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, which began in 1954 as a training program for physical therapists in response to the large number of young people with polio at the time.

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