Image courtesy of Carolina Biological Supply Company

Virtual lab ushers in next generation of biologists

2021년 4월 22일
For students learning biology, there’s nothing quite like hands-on experience. Textbooks and lectures are a vital component, but there’s no substitute for creating a biological reaction and watching the results play out—even if that reaction is virtual. 

With class sizes increasing and space within schools at a premium, it’s becoming more and more impractical—if not outright impossible—to provide the materials for everyone to explore a lab in person. But what if you could supplement the physical lab visits by moving them online? And better still, what if you could attract an entirely new generation of students to biology by mixing in a little bit of gaming? 

That’s exactly what biology professor Dr. Baktybek Asanakunov and the North Carolina-based Carolina Biological Supply Company sought to do with the “Carolina Biotechnology Simulator,” a realistic, open world recreation of a biology lab created with Unreal Engine. From the safety posters on the walls to stylized stone floors, the simulator provides the next best thing to a fully stocked lab, allowing students to experiment without ever having to leave their homes.
 

The freedom to fail

Beyond creating a virtual space that students can access remotely, Baktybek and Carolina leveraged the toolset within Epic Games’ Unreal Engine to offer a unique lesson plan built around individual choices. Rather than forcing students into a tightly controlled series of steps, the lessons offer the freedom inherent to open, digital spaces—including the freedom to fail. 

In a physical lab, students need to follow step-by-step guidelines, both for their own safety and due to the limited nature of the materials. Ironically, experimenting is somewhat discouraged. But if you ask any trained scientist, they will tell you that failure is part of the process. That’s not a luxury most physical student labs can offer, but in the Biotechnology Simulator it’s encouraged. Experiments may work or may not, but in a virtual environment students can always try again.
Image courtesy of Carolina Biological Supply Company
“Mistakes in the lab can be costly, both in time and money, but making mistakes is so important to the learning process,” says Dhani Biscocho, Product Manager at Carolina Biological Supply Company. “Unreal Engine made it possible to allow for this level of freedom and flexibility, which in turn helps students feel confident and prepared for success.”

High score, high grades

Students exploring the Biotechnology Simulator begin with the “tour” section, where they are introduced to the tools and concepts they will need to master the experimentation phase. Once the tour is complete, they engage in a series of interactive tests. And since students are never told which answers they got right, they need to demonstrate a real understanding of the lessons before they can move on. It’s designed that way to feel less like a test and more like a skills challenge, a concept familiar to most gamers. Fail and restart; succeed and move on to the next level.
Image courtesy of Carolina Biological Supply Company
After completing the testing section, students head into the exercise area to conduct their experiments. The Biotechnology Simulator offers them the chance to work with bacterial transformation, highlighting a process similar to how insulin is made. But where students in the real world are essentially interactive passengers following instructions, in the simulator they become active participants, approaching the experiment like a puzzle. 

“The simulator was developed with the idea that learning from a game-based approach can increase motivation and cognitive ability,” says Biscocho. “When the learning process resembles a game it becomes more approachable, helping teachers present difficult scientific concepts in ways that might inspire future biologists in the making.”

In the virtual lab, students start by selecting the bacterial colony they will use. They then handle every step of the experiment, including the heat shock, incubation, and observation. Anything a student would do to perform the experiment in a physical lab is present in the simulation, and students need to go through every step.
Image courtesy of Carolina Biological Supply Company
While there is a clear measure for success and a set goal in open-world learning, there is no one specific path students are required to take. They can approach each step in whatever order they like, which could lead to a valuable shortcut or a significant mistake. It is a non-linear style of education that gives students the freedom to succeed or fail on their own, and the teacher a chance to prep them for a hands-on exercise if they decide to conduct the physical lab later.

For some, the Biotechnology Simulator will help expose students to additional lab work and procedures, including a new vocabulary of terms and a practical understanding of bacterial transformations. But for others, it may be a painless—and even fun—introduction to a field that can often feel daunting and inaccessible. 
Image courtesy of Carolina Biological Supply Company

Creating the next level of education 

The idea for the Biotechnology Simulator came from a combination of practical need and innovative thought. Baktybek, a professor of biology at the Kyrgyz National University, began to wonder how he could enhance his classroom sessions while appealing to a generation of students more familiar with game logic than biological reactions. He couldn’t find anything that quite fit his needs, so he decided to build it himself. 
Image courtesy of Carolina Biological Supply Company
Baktybek’s goal wasn’t to replace classroom or physical lab experiences, but to enhance them. That made accessibility key. Students needed to be able to easily explore the virtual lab, and interact in a way that felt natural for a generation of gamers. Epic Games’ Unreal Engine was the natural choice to fit those demands, so Baktybek decided to learn Unreal Engine himself. 

He taught himself how to use the game engine, then focused on its Blueprint visual scripting system. Geared for non-coders, Blueprint allowed the professor to build a virtual lab, including the ability to move freely around the location, based on his own personal experiences. Once the mechanics and lab were locked, though, he needed help creating the digital materials. Baktybek was familiar with Carolina Biological through its hands-on kits and products for students. After a quick trip to the company’s website, the professor reached out to see if they could work together. A few conversations later, a partnership was born.
Image courtesy of Carolina Biological Supply Company
Building on Baktybek’s virtual lab and working to his specifications, Carolina created the procedures and experiments. Hand animations were used to simulate the basic actions and movements needed to perform the tests, including the manipulation of test tubes, petri dishes, and incubator doors. Carolina Biological then animated the transilluminator, water bath lids, and timers, rounding out one of the most realistic remote lab experiences ever created.

For his efforts, Baktybek received an Epic MegaGrant, and with the help of Carolina Biological, brought the simulator to market. Following a two-year beta conducted by Baktybek’s students, the Biotechnology Simulator was released under a one-year license agreement for single users and classrooms, specifically geared toward high schools and colleges. Four separate bacterial lessons are currently available, representing six hours of dynamic content for teachers to break out. 

The next experiment

In many ways, the Carolina Biotechnology Simulator is an experiment in its own right. But with each success, the idea of a comprehensive virtual lab program looks more promising.

“The feedback we’ve been getting from teachers has been phenomenal; the simulator is really speaking to students who enjoy the game-like nature of the lessons,” says Biscocho. “That’s not just validating—it also makes us want to design more lessons for them in the future. There’s a world of possibility in a virtual lab, and since we already have a strong base in Unreal, the question really becomes: Where do we want to go next?”

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