ALETHA: A Mixed Reality for an Enhanced Lab Course on Microfluidics

Keywords

Mixed reality, Microsoft HoloLens, microfluidics, lab-on-a-chip, lab course instruction

Introduction

Natural sciences phenomena can be hard to understand by students due to inherent complexity and the inability to cognitively perceive the underlying processes and mechanisms. This can create a disconnect between the student’s understanding of the experiment and the underlying fundamentals. Additionally, it is important to give students the opportunity to change conditions and parameters so they can experience causality and build up intuition. While hands-on activities in laboratory courses can help by allowing direct interaction with these processes in the real world, these lab courses often use strict, prescribed protocols that lack opportunities to iterate and control parameters, and ultimately limit the student’s problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Figure 1. Students experiencing ALETHA, our microfluidic mixed reality lab course experience.

Goals

Learning science principles such as multimodal representations, control-of-variables, scaffolding, and gamification are known to improve student learning outcomes. However, cost, time, and resource limitations can make it difficult to apply many of these learning science principles to traditional lab courses. Individualized electronic learning platforms such as Mixed Reality (MR) combine anchored virtual objects with reality allowing students to experience their environment in new ways, expand beyond strict and limited protocols, and provide them with a safe space to explore the learning material with limited consequences. We propose to develop a new modular MR application grounded in learning science principles.  We aim to effectively apply these principles to traditional laboratory courses in a novel way to improve student learning in an individualized manner.

As test case, we have selected an interdisciplinary practical course on biofabrication techniques offered to students with diverse backgrounds in life sciences and engineering. We hypothesize that the integration of learning science methods with MR will enhance student understanding of the subject matter by expanding perception, building intuition, and merging abstract theory and real-world practice in this course. This combination of technology and learning sciences has the potential to ultimately improve student comprehension, motivation, intuition, and problem solving in a supportive and resourceful environment that can be adapted to numerous other courses and applications at ETH and beyond. While research on the content and design of the app is ongoing, we envision the development of a modular app that, while tailored to this course, can be shared and used within the HoloLens community at ETH.

Figure 2. Mixed reality experience panels and implementation of learning science concepts of multimodal representation, control-of-variables, gamification, and scaffolding.

State of the project

We partnered with the external software company afca and created the application ALETHA for the HoloLens that allows for modular and flexible design of MR lab courses. ALETHA can easily be adapted to other lab courses taught at ETH thanks to its user-friendly web portal. We used ALETHA to design a practical lab course to teach students how to build a microfluidic device. During the spring 2021 semester, 12 ETH master students used ALETHA and successfully completed the course. To test whether MR enhances learning, we compared the performance of these 12 students that followed the course with ALETHA to 12 other students that followed the course using a paper protocol format. We assess student learning and affective outcomes using knowledge quizzes to test their understanding as well as surveys to evaluate their overall motivation and engagement. Overall, we observed greater intuition building and engagement from MR students compared to the control group. While a larger cohort size may be needed to effectively assess the influence of MR on student learning in this context, ALETHA nevertheless provides a practical example of how MR can successfully be implemented to teach complex interdisciplinary topics such as microfluidics.

Project team

Dr. Fabio Grillo

Prof. Dr. Manu Kapur

Prof. Dr. Simone Schürle-Finke

Alumni

Dr. Thomas Valentin

Dr. Andrea De Micheli