In the proposed pilot project, MicrobeLabVR, students participate in a 3D VR scenario, simulating the career and job skills of an environmental science and/or clinical lab technician. The goal of this learning module is to give students taking Biology with an introductory lesson on how to use a dissecting and compound microscope correctly.

In this scenario we anticipate a full simulation of an environmental study project. Students will obtain two samples of lake water to visualize microscopically and learn to identify common freshwater aquatic organisms followed by two bacterial samples to learn how to determine Gram status. Both of these sample types will contain representative organisms from the real world (Re: Lake Vancouver) simulated for the VR environment. The microscopic and analytical techniques gained in the module are employable in medical and environmental science labs (research and industrial) as well as food and beverage industries. Gram staining is also an integral part of bacteriology and histology lab work in the medical industry.

Specific user actions will trigger feedback related to the action that is achievable via the system’s physics. For example, simulating the experience of manipulating a microscope coverslip teaches students about microscope operation, while breaking a microscope objective (and expensive real world equipment) triggers a warning system––a loud cracking sound of glass breaking–that startles the user and simultaneously alerts the instructor. Misidentifying a microorganism (indicated by the incorrect tag being attached to the simulated image) leads to a gentle prod from the system in the form of a note that pops up. In fact, the environment can be configured by the instructor to allow such mistakes and simulate a dramatic failure at the end of the mission, triggering a post-mortem debriefing and repetition of the training session. As a competency-based system, a more advanced task/scenario only opens if the user demonstrates sufficient base-level competencies at the current skill level.

Another benefit of MicrobeLabVR is that full user activity record can be collected and attached to the student’s lab record report. As such, an instructor can subsequently review all user actions and provide targeted comments with which to improve performance. We will use the tools provided by Unity Analytics: LiveStream for immediate feedback and Core Analytics for whole module review and discussions. The use of real-time scoring points and activity records facilitates instantaneous results for the user and for the instructor to review and share with the students. Essentially, the instructor can evaluate student progress throughout the learning module step-by-step. In the meantime, a student will receive partial and immediate feedback from the system (e.g. breaking glass, change of score) and briefly delayed targeted intervention by the observing instructor. The student also has the option of requesting help by “virtually” raising a hand to alert the instructor for assistance. The system also provides self-contained “mini-games”, or drills, within the simulation with which to build expertise and competency in a particular task (e.g., microscope operation and measurement),  as side “quests” from the whole scenario.