BioChemAR: Macromolecular 3D visualizations in the classroom

Last term, I wrote about Classroom Augmented Reality in an Online World. In this post, I will give a real-world example of using Augmented Reality for teaching undergraduate students the three-dimensional structure of proteins.

Traditional methods of teaching macromolecular structures have focused on using two-dimensional images to illustrate the three-dimensional structures of molecules. Two-dimensional visualizations, however, can limit students’ understanding of the spatial elements of 3D molecules.

To address the gaps in traditional visualizations, my colleague at Carleton College, Dr. Rou-Jia Sung, and I developed a mobile application utilizing augmented reality (AR) technology called BioChemAR. The application allowed users to visualize and manipulate the 3D structure of the potassium channel. We accompanied BioChemAR with a set of curricular worksheets directing the students on how to use the application during an in-class discussion.

We implemented BiochemAR into an upper-level undergraduate biochemistry course run at Carleton college during Fall 2017 and Fall 2018. For most of the students in the class, this was their first exposure to using molecular visualization software.

Students worked together in groups of 3 or 4 for 50 minutes on an in-class worksheet. Then, students used the remaining class time to discuss their responses together as a class. After viewing each of the 3D models, we followed up with students over a couple of class periods to ask if they felt the visualizations helped or hindered their answers.

Due to the pandemic, in-class testing of the application was placed on hold for the last twelve months. If you are interested in using the potassium module for your course or developing new module ideas, please reach out. We would love to help you use BioChemAR in your classroom here at Pomona and are gathering feedback on future improvements for the app.

The app is free to download on iOS and Android systems, is suitable for use on mobile devices and tablets, and is aimed at audiences ranging from introductory to advanced undergraduate levels. To learn more about BioChemAR, please read our complete article, BiochemAR: An Augmented Reality Educational Tool for Teaching Macromolecular Structure and Function, published in the Journal of Chemical Education.