Virtual Reality Gives Students a New Look at Physiology

VR Dreamery Lab

A student immersed in a virtual reality depiction of heart disease. Credit: Yasina Somani

This summer I had the opportunity to design and teach a two-week course as part of the Summer Discovery program at Penn State. The program brings high school students from all over the globe, including Taiwan, Japan and Puerto Rico, to central Pennsylvania to attend college preparation courses.

Taking the lead in developing and teaching a course was a refreshing departure from my role as a graduate teaching assistant during the school year. My course was an introduction to exercise physiology that focused on the physiological basis for exercise training to prevent and treat chronic disease. As we began, I sensed that my students didn’t fully understand the relationship between exercise and disease. So I organized a field trip to the Dreamery at Penn State.

The Dreamery is a space on campus that houses various immersive technologies such as augmented and virtual reality. Each of us had a chance to try out a physiology virtual reality application. Outfitted with headsets and controllers, we were transported into the virtual world.

The students found themselves surrounded by the small airways and air sacs (bronchioles and alveoli) in the lungs. They used the controllers to change the settings and observe what the structures would look like in someone with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They walked through the coronary arteries of the heart as they developed fatty streaks and sticky buildup (plaque) in a process called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis eventually leads to heart disease. Students observed a demonstration of a procedure—called an angioplasty—that widens the artery and places a mesh tube called a stent to keep an artery open. Although the application we tested did not have accompanying narration, a separate monitor displayed what the students were viewing and I was able to offer commentary.

In an article published in Advances in Physiology Education, researcher Daniel Richardson points out several potential pitfalls of using virtual reality for teaching physiology. One is that the complexity of physiological systems may not be considered fully in the virtual world, which may lead to misconceptions and an oversimplified view of course material. However, educators may overcome this hurdle by providing narration and “guided tours” as I did with my class.

My students said the application was “impressive” and “fun,” suggesting that this tool can help with retaining information learned in class. After my experience with the technology, I think virtual reality provides a good visual representation of the body’s systems. It may be a useful tool to supplement conventional physiology teaching and enhance learning.

Yasina SomaniYasina Somani, MS, is a PhD student in the Cardiovascular Aging and Exercise Lab at Penn State. She is interested in studying the effects of novel exercise and nutritional therapies on cardiovascular outcomes in both healthy and clinical populations.

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