The joy of high school science through virtual reality

The VR School Study has been a two year journey in school-university collaboration. Throughout this time there have been many moments of frustration but also of an excitement that can only be sparked by collective intellectual endeavour. Among students there has also been frustration when the technology fails but these times are in contrast to what can only be be described as moments of pure learning joy.

Sadly, joy is not something that is spoken about enough in relation to schooling, and especially in regard to high school science classes. The joy of discovery is, of course, a central feature of the discipline of science, especially after the trials and tribulations of long periods of hard thought and experimentation. This quote from a lecture published in the journal Science back in 1936 captures the delight of scientific inquiry:

“While it is true that scientific men (sic) must make an impersonal study of the laws of Nature, there is ample evidence from historical records of the joy they have felt on achieving their goal. Newton, it was said, was so agitated when his work on the law of gravitation approached completion that he had to beg a friend to complete his calculation. …Harvey (the first to describe how the heart pumps blood around the body) said that ‘the pains of discovery are amply compensated by the joys of discovery.’ …The joy of the creative intellect, whether in art, literature or science, is one of the most exalted human emotions.”

How often do students experience the joy of scientific inquiry in high school science classrooms? This is a question worth asking because learning through discovery should be serious fun. How have technologies, across the ages, been instrumental in producing feelings of curiosity, wonder, excitement and that ‘exalted’ human emotion, joy? These emotions are intrinsic to the ‘creative intellect’ and they lay at the very heart of ideas in broader educational discourses about student engagement, school climate and motivation for learning.

During the VR School Study there have been moments of pure joy. As part of a unit of work in science, Year 9 students (14-15 years old) were asked to research an organ of the body, model and label it in desktop PC Minecraft Win 10 or Pocket Edition on mobile devices, and then import it into Win 10 Minecraft VR run on networked Oculus Rifts. There, they continued collaboratively building and refining the model in preparation for presenting what they had learnt about that body part to an audience.

Some examples of the pure joy of learning stand out. For instance, the first time a group of girls imported the levitating eyeball they had built in desktop computer Minecraft into Minecraft VR, there were squeals of excitement, raucous laughter, and a rapid flow of ideas about how to refine the model. They flew under and around the eyeball which was as large as a house and then into its interior via the eye’s lens. When they met inside the eye, and started lighting it up with torches, the amazement of the experience was palpable. A screenshot of the eyeball is below and the scale of it is discernible by the box on the ground which represents 1m x 1m. The square gap on the top of the eyeball was  used by the girls who would fly high and then dive into it.

floating eye from above2

A group of boys had built an eyeball with an optical nerve attached to it which the player could run through until they reached the internal part of the eye. They then began to make a rollercoaster for others to tour the eye with plans for it to extend through the optical nerve. The sheer fun of running up and through a nerve while discussing the function of it was wonderful to observe.

One group of girls had built an artery and they had labelled the various layers of the artery wall after researching the correct biological terms. As they refined their model in VR, the girls excitedly discussed how they would take peers on a tour of it, travelling through the artery ‘like a platelet in the bloodstream.’ Below is a screenshot of a side view of the artery with a pig in front of it and below this is a screenshot of a cross-sectional view of the artery with the key identifying its part.

Artery from side

Artery with legend

A group of boys took great care in building a spinal column with nerve endings, spinal fluid (or spinal juice as one fellow called it) attached to a detailed brain in cross-section. In VR, the structure was as high as a skyscraper and flying up and around it as they commentated on what work was still required was an astounding experience. They had provided, at ground level, an informative key to parts of the model. To hear students talk authoritatively and with great energy about how they went about selecting materials to try to accurately reflect the biological components of the spine, nerves and brain, while simultaneously working to improve the representation, provided a glimpse into the power of virtual reality for learning. Below is a screenshot looking up at the spinal cord with nerves and the brain; the floating white cubes are lanterns to illuminate it at night, although one boy did remark they might be thought of as electrical impulses emitting from the brain.  The feature image for this blog post is a screenshot looking down at the brain at night.

Brain looking up

While the study is not all smooth sailing, with the technological hitches demotivating some students, it has yielded insights into how collaborative inquiry using immersive VR can promote deep, authentic learning. The discovery component is twofold. Firstly there is a visceral discovery in how much more wondrous 3D models and cross-sections can look and feel in a truly immersive environment; the uniquely embodied and affective qualities of an experience that it is all around you compared with looking at or generating something on a computer screen. Secondly, there is discovery in researching and applying what is often fairly dry theoretical scientific knowledge in a process of collective creative intellect stemming from collaborative experimentation with the learning affordances of VR such as manipulation of size or unique navigation techniques (flying or diving).

The study provides a tantalizing glimpse into the (near) future of immersive education.

 

Keeping it real – A/Prof Erica Southgate (who is still recovering from flying around that skyscraper of a brain!)

 

Top 5 VR School moments (so far)

As educators it’s always good to reflect on our top learning experiences, and so here are my top 5 VR School moments to date.

1. When the tech works it’s magic

It’s no easy feat getting the tech to work for this project. It includes networking the Oculus Rifts so that students can collaborate in Minecraft VR and deploying Window 10 version of Minecraft to desktop and laptop computers or Pocket Edition Minecraft to tablets and  diverse BYOD mobile devices. The school system has a block on game stores and a work-around was needed. And, then there is the issue of glitches like inexplicable loss of tracking, program crashes or the need to reset Guardian systems that have shifted within the tight space of the VR room.  Every time we get through lesson without too many glitches we breathe a sigh of relief.

2. Students are smiling, laughing, dancing and swimming with dolphins in VR

Watching the joy of students in immersive virtual reality is worth the gargantuan effort to address the technical issues. Students in immersive VR are animated as they explore, create, work together and sensation seek (by flying over landscapes or swimming with dolphins). There is spontaneous dancing and singing too. Watching students have  serious fun in the science classroom is just brilliant.

3. Students recognise if they are distracted and refocus back on the learning task

Students remark that all the cool things to do in immersive VR can distract them from getting on with the learning task; however, most do direct themselves and each other back to learning and actively negotiate roles and actions to achieve their goal. Understanding this dynamic is important for future educational applications of the technology.

4. Students collaborate to create new ways to demonstrate their understanding of the topic

Students generally like the challenge of interpreting the learning task to demonstrate their understanding of the topic in new and creative ways; in this case the task is building biological models and delivering unique and fun presentation modes such as tour experiences.  It isn’t possible to predict how students will creatively use the affordances of immersive VR (like manipulation of scale or embodied spatial navigation), but the end results are often positively surprising (like taking the teacher on a flying tour of an enormous plant cross-section or building a hollow root system that can be traversed by other learners).

5. Some girls start asking questions about technology careers

An unexpected consequence of putting the technology into classrooms is that it has prompted girls express interest in the uses and future of the technology and possible careers in the area. Using immersive technologies for learning may spark career conversations about tech jobs with girls and other groups who are under-represented in the industry. This is worth thinking about.

Over and out for now (I am off to swim with those virtual dolphins) – A/Prof Erica Southgate

Feature image: Screenshot of the dolphins in Minecraft.

An update from the VR School Study

As we move into Phase 2 of the VR School Study, the team thought that we would give you a quick video update on what we have learnt so far and what we hope to achieve over the next few months. Here is Associate Professor Erica Southgate with the low down!

And how cool is the featured picture (top). It is a student work sample from Phase 1 of the study. On the left is a bluebell that the student created in Minecraft VR and on the right is how he labelled the cross-section of the flower by drawing on his research on the different parts and functions of a plant.  He took Erica on an amazing guided tour of his creation where they both flew around the flower (like bees) while he explained the meaning of the labelled cross-section to her. It was a thoroughly researched scientific experience and great fun to boot!

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