A core learning objective for students in biochemistry courses is understanding the relationship between the function and the structure of macromolecules, such as proteins. However, instructors must typically teach students about 3D molecules by using 2D images. As a result, many students have trouble grasping key elements of 3D macromolecular structure, including scale and the effects of molecular shape changes. This project aims to address this limitation by developing an augmented reality (AR) application to visualize 3D macromolecules that are central to understanding biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, and genetics. AR is an interactive system in which a computer-generated 3D object is superimposed onto the physical environment. This project aims to develop a freely available AR-based application that can be installed on mobile smartphones and tablets and that can be used to visualize and manipulate macromolecules. The project seeks to implement the application in classes at two liberal arts colleges that include a combined total of ~100 students each year. It will also assess the impact of these AR-based teaching tools on student learning. Since the AR application will be freely available, it can enable the public to easily 'see' and interact with biological macromolecules that are important to human health.

To address the current gap in instructional tools available for teaching macromolecular structure, this project has three objectives: 1) Develop an application that uses AR technology to allow students and instructors to engage and interact with virtual 3D macromolecular structures; 2) Develop three learning modules on biochemistry topics of membrane transport (potassium channel), allosteric regulation (hemoglobin), active site catalysis (G-proteins); 3) Implement each learning module and evaluate its impacts in biochemistry courses taught by different instructors at different institutions. The project will evaluate the impacts of AR technology on both student learning outcomes and on potential changes to instructional practices in the classroom. The project aims to evaluate the effectiveness of the modules with respect to i) user experience with the technology; ii) impacts on student attitudes and visuospatial skills; and iii) impacts on instructional practices of using virtual 3D objects to teach macromolecular structure and function. During evaluation, the project will also develop and validate new instruments for effective assessment of the modules. The project aims to disseminate the AR applications through workshops for interested instructors and professional science educators, thus layin the groundwork for academic collaborations and community partnerships that can develop additional interactive AR modules. In addition to providing a novel tool for teaching molecular structure and function, the project will lay a strong foundational framework for the evaluation and development of additional AR-based teaching tools in the future. This project is supported by NSF's Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) Program: Engaged Student Learning (Exploration and Design tier).

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Pushpa Ramakrishna
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Carleton College
United States
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