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student using 3d virtual microscope o their laptop in coffee shop

OSU nabs national award for first-ever 3-D virtual microscope for online biology courses

By Tyler Hansen

First ever 3-D virtual microscope

Read OSU announcement.

OSU wins a 2017 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) award for its groundbreaking, first-of-its kind 3-D Virtual Microscope and online introductory biology course series. The award recognizes innovative, technology-based solutions that transform the college learning experience.

WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) presents the WOW award to colleges, universities, and organizations who implement exceptionally creative, technology-based solutions to contemporary challenges in higher education.

Developed in partnership with OSU Ecampus and Integrative Biology and Botany and Plant Pathology faculty, the 3-D Virtual Microscope essentially puts a microscope in the hands of every distance education student so they can complete the full biology series online. This online simulation provides much-needed student interaction with lab equipment.

The physical and virtual worlds collide under the microscope with 3-D interactive to give students a real learning experience at a distance. Try it out here. Switch the lamp from off to on to start using it.

The project took one year to produce the 3-D microscope interactive project following six months of research and development time. The collaboration involved more than 30 OSU faculty, department heads, OSU Ecampus multimedia developers, instructional designers and other staff.

Faculty Andrew Bouwma in the College of Science and Genevieve Weber in the College of Agricultural Sciences piloted the development of the lab series. The end goal was not just to increase access to education, but also to make that educational experience rigorous and engaging. The comprehensive development process ensured the labs met the same learning outcomes as OSU’s on-campus labs.

“I teach on-campus and online biology courses, and I wanted to find a way to give my online students the same, meaningful experience my on-campus students receive,” Bouwma said. “I started using the virtual microscope in my online classes immediately, and it’s been an effective tool in my teaching since it allows me to give my students more realistic assignments in cell biology, which I believe improves student engagement.”

Andrew Bouwma in front of shrubbery and brick wall

Andrew Bouwma, Integrative Biology Instructor

Previously, an online student who needed to complete biology lab work would have had to attend an on-campus course where they lived. The lack of an online biology option was a significant barrier to degree completion. The question of how to teach students in introductory biology courses to operate a microscope online had troubled faculty for years.

Students had two choices: buy a compound microscope to use at home—with costs ranging from $50 to over $1,000—enroll in a campus-based course at their local college and use its labs. Commuting to and taking a class on campus, however, would further drain adult learners of their most valuable and fleeting resource: time.

As a land-grant institution, Oregon State University’s mission is to increase access to education. This innovative online technology was important not only to help distance students take a biology course with lab work, but it was also important to improve the university’s ability to meet its land-grant mission.

Here’s how it works. To create the virtual lab experience, developers mounted a camera on top of an actual microscope and took pictures of the lab slides. The photos were then woven into 3-D interactive, which allowed students to adjust the lighting, zoom and manipulate the 3-D microscope. The student view of the real-life photographs responds based on how they manipulate the virtual microscope’s controls. The use of 3-D interactive is certainly innovative, but what is incredibly creative about this approach is the manner in which the real and the virtual are combined to give students an actual learning experience online.

This biology series was created based on student need, which really galvanized everyone who worked on the project. That helped the team imbue all related projects with similar enthusiasm and passion, which ultimately boosted student success and removed barriers to degree completion.

Other 2017 recipients of WCET’s Outstanding Work award include the University of Central Florida, Blackboard Inc. and Healthcare Learning Innovations, a division of American Sentinel University. WOW awardees will be recognized next month by WCET’s national community of higher education innovators at the WCET 29th Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, October 25-27, 2017.