Senior School News

Three years ago, Professor Harwin from Reading University approached The Abbey with the opportunity to be involved in the development of exciting new technology. Returning for a third time, a group of researchers visited The Abbey with their haptic devices to collect data from a group of enthusiastic Abbey girls. Megan Tracey, a PhD student from Kings College, London is looking to see whether the haptics feedback improves learning compared to the 3D but non-haptic environment. She is also looking to see if it is possible to identify which students might particularly benefit from this, i.e. looking to see if there is a correlation with spatial awareness, dexterity etc. Last year, The Abbey Science Team felt there would be distinct applications of the technology for the teaching of cell structure. Thus, this is what the girls would be trialling on this occasion.

In pairs, the girls were seated next to each other at a work bench in the Science Department. One girl was sat in front of a keyboard and computer screen and the other sat in front of a ‘robot’. If sat in front of the ‘robot’, they would take on the role of pilot and the other co-pilot. The pilot strapped her thumb and index finger of her dominant hand to the ‘robot’ and sported an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, allowing them to observe and travel around a virtual environment. Meanwhile, the co-pilot could view the same virtual environment on her computer screen and took control of delivering instructions to the pilot.

Within this virtual environment, the pilot was able to see and interact with the structure of a cell. Haptic devices offer real sensory feedback, meaning that the pilot could hold on to a molecule outside the cell and move the molecule through the cell membrane into the cell, ‘feeling’ the texture of the object and experiencing the resistance applied as it is moved through the membrane. This movement was relayed onto the co-pilot’s screen in real time.

The girls found that the oxygen molecules moved through the membrane easily without resistance, however glucose molecules would not pass through the membrane unless directed through a specific protein channel. The co-pilot was able to freeze, slow down and convert the virtual environment back to normal speed, making it easier for the pilot to take hold of the molecules and observe their movement.

Haptic technology has been shown to be effective in teaching skills, however the research gathered from The Abbey will be used to see whether it could help to learn a concept. This research is in its very early stages – biologists want a much more advanced system and the poor programmer pales at our suggestions. They would like to incorporate the idea of a concentration gradient and movement down it being easier the steeper the gradient and moving against it requiring the cell to expend energy. Some of these concepts are easy to learn parrot fashion, which can get you so far, but a deeper understanding is much more challenging and its shortfall may only become apparent at A level or university level.

Although already popular in the world of gaming, haptics could not be integrated into regular teaching but we know how fast technology advances and so it would be good to know if it is worth developing for the teaching of concepts before the hardware and software are ready (cheaper, smaller and simpler) for use in every classroom. Furthermore, the potential for the use of such technology in medicine is an exciting prospect. This was a fantastic opportunity to be involved in and was greatly appreciated by all the girls and staff. On entering the virtual environment, the room was met with expressions of “Wow”, “This is amazing” and there was an enthusiastic atmosphere throughout the day. Therefore, it is safe to say, the haptic technology impressed the girls and they thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity.

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