My Labster Experience: Mike Angilletta, Arizona State University

Dr. Mike Angilletta from Arizona State University (ASU) was one of the first teachers in the world to teach a biology course that relies on VR to deliver practical lab sessions. He is the Associate Director of Undergraduate Programs in the School of Life Sciences at ASU and teaches Ecology to online students, who make up about a third of ASU’s total undergraduate student population. 

With Labster, he and two other ASU professors co-created a package of 30 VR lab simulations that were launched in the summer of 2019. We spoke to him in a webinar right after he had finished his six week course, about how it had been to teach with the VR labs.

Watch the webinar here, or read on to learn what the pros and cons are of teaching science courses with VR, how students responded to the VR labs in Dr. Angilletta’s course, and whether VR can (and should) be used to replace large fractions of a lab course.

The ASU and Labster collaboration: where it started

As the Associate Director of Undergraduate Programs Dr. Angilletta was asked by the dean of the program to help put together a 100% online biology degree. This degree was to be the first online degree in the world that would provide students with a Bachelor of Science in Biology utilizing VR

“The biggest hurdle we were facing was how we were going to complete the curriculum by delivering advanced lab courses online.” Dr. Angilletta explained about the task. “There are many simulation products out there by now, but most are targeted at the introductory level.”

Dr. Angilletta met with the Labster team to see if these labs could potentially overcome the hurdle. “Labster was an option. But it was a very different kind of option. Labster’s labs are narrative-driven, meaning there’s a story, and that’s something I think is key to learning, because students get engaged when they see there’s a reason why they’re exploring a problem, and they can relate it to the real-world.”

Dr. Angilletta tried on Labster’s VR headset for the first time, and was immediately immersed. “I didn’t want to come out of the headset! They had to pull me out of there and ask me to come back to the meeting!” Dr. Angilletta laughed, and added that he was quick to make up his mind about the collaboration. “At that point I said I wanted to do the entire degree with these labs. And that’s where it started.”

Co-creating 30 VR labs with Google

It took about a year from that point to figure out the details of the collaboration, to find funding, and to get Google onboard as the third partner in the project.

From there, the development of the labs began. The ASU faculty validated the content of the labs and ensured that all learning objectives were met, so that ASU were able to provide full course credit to students using Labster VR simulations as part of their course. 

Dr. Angilletta co-created the 10 ecology labs. The other labs created in collaboration with ASU were for Cell Biology and Animal Physiology. Watch Google for Education’s video to learn more about the ASU, Google and Labster collaboration.

What do the students think?

Dr. Angilletta’s initial expectations for the VR simulations were that using VR was going to affect how the students felt about the labs, more than it would affect how much they would learn.

“I talk to a lot of people about VR and they’re very focused on looking at research to determine whether it’s a tool that works. But I think maybe it’s more about each individual person trying to figure out what works for them, and less about what the research says, because there is very little research at this point, and a lot of variation in the data,” Dr. Angilletta explained. 

All the VR labs ASU offer as a part of their courses are also available in a desktop version, and it’s up to the individual student to decide what hardware they want to use. He added that although almost all of his 85 students in the ecology course enjoyed using the headsets, there were a few who chose to use the desktop simulations instead, for reasons including the costs of the headset and the comfort of wearing the headset for long periods of time. For the ones who did choose the VR headsets, he said: “They‘re really engaged and immersed in it and it’s very hard for them to get distracted, because they are literally surrounded by the laboratory. It can actually make them more excited about doing their schoolwork.” 

65 students answered a survey on the virtual labs at the end of the course. The following percentage of students either agreed or completely agreed with the statements:

  • 80% felt like they were in a real lab in the simulations
  • 97% felt more confident about their skills after the simulations
  • 85% felt they could apply what they learned in the simulations to cases in the real world
  • 98% would like to use simulations in addition to, or instead of, real lab exercises 

“Some of the students even said that if this is the beginning of VR, I’m really excited to see where it’s going to go—and I’m actually disappointed that I’m going to graduate before it gets there!” Dr. Angilletta added.

A novel learning experience

One of the simulations Dr. Angilletta co-created is on behavioral thermoregulation. Dr. Angilletta explained how the imaginary exoplanet Astakos IV came to be, and what the thinking was behind creating a completely novel experience with alien creatures and mesmerizing environments. Watch the webinar to learn why Labster and ASU decided to create this new learning universe, and how the students’ learning can benefit from, for example, experimenting with alien creatures in a safe learning environment, where they can’t have any preconceived ideas about the creatures. 

Watch the video below for a short introduction to the Behavioral Thermoregulation simulation and visit our simulation catalog to find more details.

The pros and cons of teaching with VR

We then dug into the benefits of virtual labs, as well as the limitations that Dr. Angilletta had experienced over the duration of the course. 

“What I think is the greatest advantage of a virtual lab is that you can do basically anything.” Dr. Angilletta started. “You can work on a piece of equipment that’s beyond the scope of what your university can afford. The students can use it freely, and more than once; they can come back and do the lab the next day and the day after that. These Labs never close. They’re open to students for the entire semester and so students can progress at their own pace. In a physical lab—if they miss a class because they were sick, or they didn’t really understand it—tough! They’re going to have to look at a friend’s notes. Whereas here, they can just go back another day.”

In Dr. Angilletta’s class, they saw a completion rate of over 2, meaning students completed the entire lab more than twice on average. Having unlimited access to lab practice in this way simply wouldn’t be possible in a physical, face-to-face lab, and certainly not for classes at larger scale. 

A disadvantage of virtual labs that many mention is that they don’t involve the tactile element. This however wasn’t a dealbreaker to Dr. Angilletta. “I’m excited to enter VR early. VR is in gaming too, so can you imagine where we’ll be in 10 years? I know an engineer here at ASU who is doing research in this field. That’s exactly what he’s trying to create: gloves that will have this sort of tactile response. And in the meantime, I think virtual labs are a pretty good substitute for many things.” Dr. Angilletta later gave an example of how in one of the labs, the student has to learn to pipette. Each time they use the pipette, they have to change the tip, and the simulation will not let you proceed until you do it correctly. “Because you had to do all of that when you’re pipetting in these labs, I can tell you—you’ll develop the muscle memory! You may not have the tactile feel, but you certainly will get the muscle memory, which I think is pretty cool.”

Many also fear that virtual labs will replace physical ones. Dr. Angilletta described how the students at ASU use Labster along with other course components as a supplementary learning tool: “We don’t just use Labster in class. The students go and do assignments with real data and make field observations of their choice around their home. And then I have them create hypotheses and design experiments. But these are all based on the skills and knowledge that they get from Labster.”

In addition to this discussion on the pros and cons of virtual labs, Dr. Angilletta addressed a number of assumptions that people typically have of virtual labs, and which keep them from reaping their benefits.

As an example, Dr. Angilletta mentioned that some professors disregard virtual labs because they lack certain learning outcomes that the teachers see as essential. “Take pipetting. So you want to ensure a student knows how to pipette with their own hands, but the virtual lab isn’t proof enough because it doesn’t have the tactile element. Then set up a video call where the student shows you how they pipette! Once you recognize what the cons are of virtual labs, then you figure out a different solution, and that’s what we’ve done for the online degree.”

Another assumption that was brought up by a participant in the webinar was that if the degree takes place online, then there must be less communication and interaction between students and the professor. “It’s a great point, and this might seem ironic, but I can actually have more direct face-to-face interaction with my online students than our on-campus students.” Dr. Angilletta said, and elaborated on how he made use of virtual office hours and video recordings to interact with his students. “So the whole online environment makes the way you teach very different. But it works. And maybe better.”

Saving resources with virtual labs

Of all the benefits of using virtual labs, Dr. Angilletta highlighted scalability and reallocation of resources as perhaps the greatest.

ASU’s online system allows for “scaling to an infinite number of students” simply by hiring more facilitators of the courses if the student population grows. At the same time, the university has, by introducing virtual labs, and moving some of the more difficult or costly labs online, been able to save resources. “We said; why don’t we replace those very costly traditional labs with these VR labs, and then we can take the resources, the people, and the time we’ve saved and invest it where it’s more needed. So now we can have choices for our students. We can change what we’re able to do on the ground because of the options we now have online.”

Can VR simulations replace traditional labs?

Finally, we asked Dr. Angilletta if he thought virtual labs can—and should—replace physical ones. “Consider this,” he said, “If you’re thinking: I already have a working program at my school. We have labs. They work great. Why would I be interested in VR? You should ask yourself: What would Labster’s simulations—whether they’re in 2D or VR—do for my program?”

Dr. Angilletta listed some thoughts for other professors to consider and reflect on. “Maybe it would give my students more time with a complex lab. Maybe I want two or three lab exercises to complement what they do in the lab because they don’t get those skills down or those concepts down. Maybe their lab time is limited. Maybe there’s something dangerous or expensive I’ve always wanted to try, but we can’t do it at my school… So you don’t have to have an entire set of simulations replacing the traditional course. My course is not just simulations, and I still do things outside of the simulations with my students so that they can apply those concepts and skills that they’ve learned.” Dr. Angilletta ended.

Watch the full webinar with Mike Angilletta here to learn more about teaching with VR and to gain further insight into the possibilities virtual labs offer.

Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date with the latest in science teaching and learning.