URI launches VR lab to enhance high school STEM education

A UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND program will encourage high school students to develop their science, technology, engineering and math skills using virtual reality and hands-on lab experiences. / COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND/PATRICK LUCE

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – A new program at the University of Rhode Island is bringing virtual reality and traditional lab spaces together to provide local high school students with a hands-on introduction to science, technology, engineering and math sectors.

Through the program, known as Hands-on Education and Research for Biomedical and Analytical Learning, students from Woonsocket, the Met and South Kingstown high schools work with URI students and faculty to investigate natural therapeutic plants and herbal medicines, at first virtually before progressing to an actual lab.

The program is funded by a $1.35 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Science and Education Partnership Award.

Participating high school students access the virtual lab, designed by URI computer science students, through a VR headset. Students can then virtually “move about the lab to accomplish goals toward the investigation of a medicinal plant and its molecules,” said David Rowley, a professor of pharmacy at URI.

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“Students will conduct experiments such as performing a biological assay, and the VR laboratory will generate results,” Rowley said. “High school students will also gain VR experiences such as purifying molecules using sophisticated instrumentation that cannot be accomplished at their high school.”

Through these processes, students will seek to identify potentially medicinal plant properties, such as antioxidants.

Over the summer, students will take this knowledge to URI’s Avedisian Hall, where they’ll carry out this VR work in an actual lab setting.

The program focuses on medicinal plants and herbs to appeal to students’ preexisting interests, Rowley said.

“Many people have experience with traditional or herbal medicines because they are used by their families and communities,” he said. “These are topics that are closely tied to people’s cultural backgrounds, so we’re using medicinal plants to help stimulate student interest in scientific pursuits.

“We see the project as a bridge to build connections between URI and high schools so students may identify interesting career paths, and potentially consider STEM majors,” Rowley said.

Rowley hopes to eventually expand the program to take place in high schools, and through open-access downloadable content.

Jacquelyn Voghel is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Voghel@PBN.com.

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