• Screenshot of  the virtual "Mozzarella Experiment" at BHT.

    Learning through play in the virtual bio-lab

At the MINT VR labs at the Berliner Hochschule für Technik, an interdisciplinary team works on didactic concepts for virtual laboratories and exercises. Ten technically different topics are currently being implemented in applications. Virtual reality is not intended to replace classroom teaching, but to complement it.

Two blue-gloved hands float through the room. They are heading for a laboratory bench. An instruction panel appears at the side of the picture. The right hand takes a laboratory glass filled with milk and pours the contents into a second glass with saline solution. It then places the mixture in a centrifuge. What's special about this exercise for making mozzarella cheese isn't the process itself, but the setup. The student is not in a real biotechnology laboratory, but in a normal office. He is also wearing VR goggles instead of safety goggles and moves rather clumsily through real space. Welcome to the MINT VR labs at the Berliner Hochschule für Technik!

The project, funded by the foundation “Innovation in der Hochschullehre” (Innovation in University Teaching), was launched in the summer of 2021 as part of a nationwide competition for digital teaching. The concept of the MINT-VR-Labs at the BHT: to consistently link the possibilities of virtual laboratories with digital teaching and learning concepts and to use them as broadly as possible in the university. The "Mozzarella experiment - biotechnological processes in production" is just one of four virtual exercises that have already been realised. There are to be ten in total.

“Our goal is to implement exercises from as many specialist areas as possible,” explains Prof. Dr. Joachim Villwock, one of the project leaders of the eight-person MINT VR Labs team. “On the one hand, we want to supplement classroom teaching with virtual reality and augmented reality and at the same time increase the didactic quality of teaching. On the other hand, we try to compensate for the heterogeneity of the students' prior knowledge through virtual exercises." In maths, for example, the knowledge base of students today is at very different levels, as current studies show. Virtual learning environments could make abstract mathematical concepts more tangible and understandable, especially if they are combined with playful approaches. Villwock: “It is important to remember that we do not want to replace laboratory work at the university. For us it's about the additional benefit. The BHT Berlin is an application-oriented university.”

Didactics come before technology

In addition to the mozzarella experiment, the four exercises that the VR Labs team has already completed include a virtual load analysis that allows budding theatre technicians and engineers to try out what weights a beam can withstand and where. In another module, functions of two variables are clearly represented in three-dimensional space in the form of surfaces. The aim is to give engineering students a better understanding of abstract mathematical relationships. In the fourth application, budding computer scientists are given an immersive insight into the basic principles of programming in a virtual pizza bakery.

The topics for the individual exercises were selected by the MINT-VR-Labs team based on concepts that interested lecturers from BHT submitted to them. “There has to be a didactic concept behind it. We then vote within the team whether the respective suggestion makes sense. Then we prioritise the modules," says Joachim Villwock. The fact that the MINT VR Labs team is interdisciplinary helps with the decision. "As a team, we cover the five important subject areas of didactics, computer science, biology, engineering and evaluation."

The applications are then developed and implemented in close cooperation with an external service provider. The Human.VR.Lab. at the BHT also supports the team with knowledge and experience. When the individual modules are finally used in teaching, they are repeatedly evaluated and adapted in a clearly defined process. A key point: Didactics come before technology. Even high-end technology such as VR headsets, hand and body tracking or augmented reality solutions are of no use if the students cannot use them properly. "Some users become cognitively overloaded. When students move around in virtual space, motion sickness often occurs,” says Dr. Evelyne Becker, biologist and project coordinator for the MINT VR Labs team. She adds: "Supporting students in the use of VR is therefore very time-consuming. It is important that they are supported through the different levels with clear instructions.”

Mix of methods in evaluation

Once the students have familiarised themselves with the VR modules and become familiar with them, the hoped-for playful benefits show themselves. This is the result of initial evaluations carried out by the MINT VR Labs team: two user groups in the subject of maths were surveyed as part of a quantitative evaluation. One worked with the VR application, the other with a digital application in which the functions are displayed on a two-dimensional screen. 

In another qualitative evaluation, the team used “Think-aloud protocols,” in which students commented out loud about what they were doing and thinking while using the VR application. So-called rating conferences were carried out as a second qualitative method: The participants initially evaluated the VR application using a questionnaire, which was then discussed in greater detail in a joint, structured discussion together with the team.

The evaluation results to date confirm some of the VR Labs team's hypotheses: Well over half of those surveyed found the virtual mozzarella experiment helpful, and around three quarters had a lot of fun doing it. In the maths application, the majority of respondents rated the VR exercises as more useful and interesting than the non-immersive software application. The VR group also rated their skills higher afterwards than the classic control group. However, it should be noted that the user groups surveyed were quite small due to the small course sizes which are typical of HAW.

What's next for the MINT VR labs at BHT?

The project “Interactive teaching in virtual MINT-laboratories” is currently waiting on an extension of the funding phase by the “Innovation in der Hochschullehre” foundation, which would ensure funding until the end of 2025. The team wants to use this time to consolidate what has been achieved so far. New modules are to be developed - such as an application that students can use to collaboratively plan a factory. An augmented reality module is also being considered. There are also plans to intensify the exchange within the MINT-VR-Labs network, which includes international and national universities and colleges such as the US partner Technical College of New Jersey, the University of Georgia, the University of Applied Sciences Munich, the HTW Berlin and the TU Dortmund, as well as the first corporate partners. It's not just about exchanging knowledge, but also about transferring the concepts developed to other areas in science and business. The idea of an open education resource is very important to the team, says Joachim Villwock.  

"Above all, however, the VR Lab is to be permanently located at the Berliner Hochschule für Technik and in Brain City Berlin beyond the funding period," says project manager Prof. Dr. Steffen Prowe, "so that students can learn in virtual space in groups or alone in the future." And Evelyne Becker adds: “We would also like to empower the departments at BHT to further develop applications themselves and write tutorials. Professional support is extremely relevant for the successful use of VR in teaching". This applies to the mathematical model as well as to the experiment in the biotechnology laboratory. But supervised or not: there is always an advantage in the virtual space: Nothing can get broken. (vdo)




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