CLEVR Cellverse Sep 2017
A collaborative VR game about cell biology and the central dogma.

About This Project

The Collaborative Learning Experiences in Virtual Reality (CLEVR) project is to  create immersive virtual reality learning experiences that can be used in today’s classrooms. CLEVR is a partnership between the Education Arcade and the MIT Game Lab, and is supported by Oculus. We are developing a collaborative educational game using immersive 3DVR to help teams of 9th grade students learn cell biology and the central dogma.

This pilot project seeks to explore our hypothesis that VR technology can play a transformative role in student learning by immersing students in interactive “hands-on” explorations ranging from manipulation of minute molecular 3D structures of DNA to the large scale of macrobiology in ways that are beyond the reach of current educational technologies.


Our designs incorporate, from their inception, both practical limitations and pedagogical opportunities of the classroom context for which these activities are intended. Our project explores best practices for leveraging a meaningful role for teachers as collaborators during the design phase and practical considerations of teachers as facilitators during the implementation phase of the project. Additionally, the learning activity will be designed with substantive, real-time collaborations with co-located peers. Given short-term limitations on the likely number of VR sets per classroom, our designs exploit opportunities for deeply synergistic activity between VR and non-VR equipped students.

VR has tremendous potential in many educational domains, from the ability to manipulate 3D models in mathematics to the development of visual and spatial ability that is essential to engineering and design. VR is uniquely suited for teaching students about the challenging yet essential topic of scale, a critical construct in the domain of science. Many of the concepts, systems, and processes in science operate at vastly different scales, from atomic to galactic, and from picoseconds to eons. We have chosen the topic of scale in molecular biology as the proof-of-concept topic for our prototype, and we will focus on a core topic, such as the central dogma in biology: the translation of the code written in the nucleotides (DNA and RNA) into the amino acids that comprise proteins.

Students’ ideas about cells

In preparation for creating the learning environment and assessing learning, we have investigated current research into the content area of students’ conceptions of cells.


Here is what we have found:
  • Students find cells difficult to visualize
  • Textbooks give an overly simplified view of cells
  • Students don’t understand how parts of the cell (organelles) comprise a whole system
  • Biology content and systems are taught as separate pieces and not integrated together
Here is how CLEVR will address these issues
  • Authentic representation of the cell
  • Holistic view – see structure of cell, function of organelles
  • Inquiry based – ability for students to explore
  • Interactive game – allows students to learn through collaborative problem solving
  • Engaging – VR delivery is very engaging to students

Expert’s knowledge about cells

From the beginning of the project, we have sought the input from biology experts and researchers who have done work in the field. We are in contact with cell biologists, other science education specialists, and experts in visualization in biology. We have shared the cell environment that we have built with a subset of these experts, and will continue to seek input throughout the process.

We have learned the following:
  • Distinct cell types differ in size and in appearance – there is no “generic cell”
    • Best to pick one type of cell to represent in the game
  • Cells are densely packed – they are not open empty spaces (this is an ongoing theme)
  • Organelles are often clear/ barely visible
    • Scientists use strategies such as staining and tagging (example, green fluorescent protein) to be able to visualize parts of cells.
  • Brownian motion in cells – constant random movement – may be a lot for novice to digest
    • Lowering temperature slows down this motion
  • Cell processes also happen more randomly than they are often portrayed in simulations
  • The viscosity of a cell is similar to the density of water (rather than gelatin)

Research Questions

This proposal focuses on two primary research questions:


RQ1. How can we design VR environments that utilize the unique affordances of the medium to enhance student engagement and learning outcomes specifically relating to the concept of scale?


RQ2. What are the essential elements of successful educational VR experiences and curricula that effectively leverage the resources available in the classroom (e.g., teacher facilitators, peer interactions, pedagogical choices) to maximize the effectiveness of VR as a pedagogical tool?

  • Thompson, M., Wang, A., Roy, D., Klopfer, E., submitted Educational Applications of 3D Immersive virtual reality – Exploring theory, applications, and design Frontiers in Robotics and AI
  • Thompson, M. (2018) Making Virtual Reality a reality in classrooms. THE Journal. January 11 2018.
  • Thompson, M., Wang, A., Roy, D., Tan, P., Klopfer, E. submitted. Designing Cellverse A VR game for learning biology. Connected Learning 2018 Conference (copy on file with author
  • Thompson, M., Roy, M., Greenwald, S.. submitted to Connected Learning 2018 Conference. Across, Between, and Within – Three Ways to Create Connected Learning through Virtual Reality. Connected Learning 2018 Conference (copy on file with author
  • Thompson, M., Olivas-Holguin, H., Wang, A., Fan, J., Pan, K., Vargas, D., Gerr, J., submitted. Rules, Roles, and Resources: Strategies to Promote Collaboration in Virtual Reality Contexts. CHI 2018 “Novel Interaction Techniques for Collaboration in VR Workshop”. (copy on file with author

Work-in-progress Videos of Prototype as of September 2017

CLEVR is made possible by a gift from Oculus Education

Related Projects
Curricula, Programming Tools
A biology curriculum exploring complex systems
Grade Range


Content Area

Cell Biology and Processes


Desktop VR (PC with Oculus Rift + Touch)

Project Manager

Judy Perry

biology, VR