New virtual reality (VR) technology created by UCL academics is opening up cutting-edge sustainable science to school children in the UK and India who might otherwise never have the opportunity to access it.
Dr Stephen Hilton (UCL School of Pharmacy) is working with a multidisciplinary team across the two countries to bring global university labs to pupils, enabling them to conduct virtual scientific experiments and learn from each other.
Through a £100,000 grant from the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), 14 scientists across nine Indian institutions and five UK universities formed the India-UK Innovation & Sustainability Chemistry Consortium (ISCC), aiming to tackle important global sustainability challenges and inspire and train the next generation of chemistry leaders through novel outreach programmes.
Dr Hilton initially developed 3D printing technology expertise and digital data in his group following a road accident which resulted in him needing an MRI scan. Watching consultants struggling to work with flat 2D images of his brain made him start to think how his team could build 3D models of anatomy models to better engage students, leading him to 3D print a model of his brain.
He then started to use 3D printed objects to help discuss challenging abstract concepts with his students, to enable them to better visualise and understand.
Then in 2019, a meeting with German company Realworld One exploring the use of VR sparked an idea of how universities could combine both 3D printing and VR to reach a wider audience.
Dr Hilton said: “It made me think, what would we need to create a virtual university? In London you don’t have that much physical space and buildings are often 100 years old. In VR you can create these wonderful, open environments to connect with people. The lack of interpersonal interaction is a real problem at the moment and this software helps combat that.”
He taught himself CAD design to create a virtual version of his lab – complete with all equipment that can be used the same way as in real life - and began working with his son’s school in Gravesend, Kent, to start testing the technology.
“Using VR in this way is a no-brainer for schools,” he added. “At some schools, parents can't afford to send their children to universities for the day. Children get trapped in a cycle of poverty. By taking our lab to them, we break down those barriers. VR can help boost attainment, creativity, and problem-solving skills, as well as enable children to interact with and learn from others across the other side of the world.”
The VR suite of rooms developed by his group are now being used by other UCL departments to connect with wider audiences, including displays of Biochemical Engineering PhD student posters. The research into VR has also been funded by Health Education England to develop digital twin models of Greenlight Pharmacy for undergraduate training.
This article was first published on 4 February by UCL.