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Dr. Brent Stockwell, PhD

Professor of Biological Sciences and of Chemistry; Chair, Department of Biological Sciences

Dr. Stockwell teaches biochemistry courses offered to advanced level undergraduate students, master’s students, and doctoral students. During the pandemic, maintaining student engagement quickly became a challenge in the online modality, and he started in Fall 2020 to incorporate virtual reality as an alternative modality to teach his introductory biochemistry courses. He found that students were able to engage more actively and perform better in virtual reality than on Zoom, and he has since continued to offer virtual reality recitation sections in his courses. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Stockwell did in his course, what lessons and experiences he is carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia. 

Increase Student Engagement in Virtual Reality

During the remote teaching period of the pandemic, students and I missed the sense of being in class together, and this is what drew me to try out virtual reality and see whether it would recreate that sense of presence in the classroom, at least to some degree. I was further motivated to explore virtual reality because I found that it was difficult to fully engage students on Zoom and also difficult to teach complex 3D biochemistry concepts even in a typical classroom setting. So I developed a way to teach biochemistry in virtual reality and evaluated the impact of this modality compared to both Zoom-based remote teaching and in-person teaching. 

I found that students were more engaged in virtual reality, compared to both in-person and especially Zoom formats (see the poster presented at the 2022 Celebration of Teaching and Learning Symposium). I also found that students who worked with 3D molecular models in virtual reality were better able to learn 3D spatial concepts relevant to biochemistry. Being able to interact with objects in 3D is probably the most important advantage that we get from virtual reality, and I have now incorporated virtual reality as a regular modality of teaching in my course — we have 3 in-person recitations and 2 virtual reality recitations that are all taught by TAs.

Partner with Collaborators 

I have been fortunate that a number of groups around the university have helped implement and evaluate the virtual reality tools for teaching. I am supported by the Libraries and their digital technologies, the SOLER initiative, CUIT, and School of Professional Studies (SPS), and together, we work to discuss the logistics of pedagogical implementations in the course and develop asynchronous training materials for students. The video below illustrates the collaborative work that we have done together as a team to create and deliver a virtual reality learning environment to students.

Video 1

I have also had the opportunity to share our work on different occasions, such as the Future of Technology in Higher Education Summit (see Slides below), the Emerging Technologies Grant talk (see Video 2) hosted by the CUIT, and a VR demo session (see Video 3) hosted by the CTL.

Slides: Presentation at the Future of Technology in Higher Education Summit

Video 2

Video 3


Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Intentionally use instructional technology to meet the learning needs of students.

It could be worth using virtual reality over Zoom when remote teaching is needed. For in-person teaching, virtual reality recitations may add value when there are key 3D concepts or models to show students. The following are some key questions that instructors might ask themselves to decide whether it is worth teaching in virtual reality:

  1. What three-dimensional aspects of your subject are difficult to master in 2D formats?
    • Examples: Molecular conformations in biochemistry, multidimensional data sets, 2D organs, instrumentation training
  2. Is there value in having some meetings with students in virtual reality?
    • Examining simulated 3D objects. Do you want to invite a visiting speaker who can show 3D models?
    • Reducing travel time (1:1 meetings, office hours, small group projects, etc.)
    • Resolving difficulty in finding meeting spaces on campus
    • Addressing the need for recordings
    • Going on virtual field trips without the expense and time of travel 

I am now exploring the use of augmented reality during in-person teaching where we can combine the benefits of being together in person with the benefit of using 3D models of proteins that we can view together.