Pull on your helmet, attach hand motion trackers, choose your avatar. Now you’re ready for the biology lab in one of Arizona State University’s new virtual reality modules.
Biology students are among the first in the school to venture into the educational world of the “alien zoo”, where, from their seat, they fly through an immersive intergalactic universe to encounter species and collect data they will analyze in class.
Freshman Emilio Roman does the simulations as part of his introductory biology class. He said it helped him learn the material better.
“It’s pretty cool how it’s integrated to help with a new perspective on how science works. Not just in a textbook, having to imagine it by seeing the pictures. That way you can make it the first-hand experience,” he said. “It’s more interesting, so I feel like I want to be more engaged.”
That’s the point. ASU believes virtual reality could add to classroom learning in a way that keeps students engaged and interested, and actually helps them learn difficult topics better.
Students are immersed in storytelling and science – they see themselves as biologist explorers, traversing a spatial land that looks like a movie landscape, while their seats shake and the breeze blows with their movement. The concept of the alien zoo was developed in part by famed director Steven Spielberg.
Students can see themselves as avatars in their floating research pods, which they move using a joystick. If they turn their head, they perceive new aspects of the environment around them.
They perform measurements and collect data on various endangered fictional creatures, applying concepts such as ecosystem balance and cell biology.
The program launched in January and is still in the pilot testing phase, with professors measuring the performance of one group of students using the virtual reality lessons against the performance of another group with the traditional labs.
The idea is that students can learn more and stay interested and successful in STEM subjects. While virtual reality tools are currently only used in some biology courses, they could be extended to a wider set of subjects.
“There are all these areas where students are struggling, and if we could bring that to those areas and help those students stay in a course to do better in the course and then they graduate, I think that’s is the long-term vision for this,” said biology professor Michael Angiletta. He helped develop the virtual reality learning materials as associate director of learning innovation at the School of Science. of life.
ASU partnered with technology and entertainment company Dreamscape Immersive in 2020, forming Dreamscape Learn to integrate virtual reality programs into an academic setting. Hollywood producer Walter Parkes, who directs Dreamscape Immersive, and Spielberg created the Alien Zoo concept, and ASU faculty worked to add educational elements.
The total cost of developing the alien zoo lab will be about $5 million, paid for through “philanthropic investment for development,” according to the university. ASU said no state-appropriated money or tuition revenue was used.
The university believes that its commitment to access and inclusion means making such significant investments in technology, which are less costly than “the cost of not developing new teaching and learning methods that help increase retention and graduation rates of the students we are here to serve,” university spokesperson Stephen Filmer wrote in an email.
ASU plans to make the new learning products it creates available to other universities. This will generate revenue to help offset the costs of researching and developing virtual reality products, according to Filmer.
ASU President Michael Crow highlighted the new program in his presentation on the state of the university to the Board of Regents last month.
“You learn biology in a very unique way, which is an equal playing field for every student who enters the alien zoo,” he said.
“I’ve done it too, many times. It is an amazing experience that we believe will result in three levels of improvement for students able to complete these classes with these virtual reality programs.
Initial launch in biology classes
This hypothesis is being tested with biology students this semester.
Each lab time for two major introductory biology courses has two sections — one that does the virtual reality programs and one that does the traditional curriculum, Angiletta said.
About 750 students are participating in the virtual reality experience this semester and their progress will be measured against the other group of students.
“We’re trying to find out if it’s more effective at engaging students in learning, are they more excited about it, are they more interested, do they come to class and talk to each other more, and then also do they learn more,” Angiletta said.
Data collection is ongoing and professors will analyze it by the end of the semester. One-day tests last year showed promise for virtual reality experiences increasing learning.
Biology students regularly visit the virtual reality space in the Creativity Commons building on the Tempe campus this semester for various modules. The room is dark, filled with blue spotlights and high-tech equipment. After students remove their helmets, they sit in mobile lab pods and roam the alien zoo environment.
A narrator guides them and tells them stories as they move through the beautiful 360-degree landscape and learn as they go, solving problems that ASU hopes are realistic enough to make them feel worthy. be approached and become emotionally invested in the work.
During a session, students encounter an animal and learn that something is wrong. They count the animal’s eggs, measure the mass of yolk and calculate the temperature of the sand, finding that it is too high for the species. The data collected by each student is recorded in a spreadsheet and reused in class.
Another lesson allowed students to learn about a species that was dying, said Roman, the introductory biology student.
“We’re basically visiting a planet, observing the ecosystem and what’s going on there,” he said, mentioning that an animal was in trouble. “We dissected them virtually, we observed their organs, they also had two hearts, lungs and kidneys.”
Roman has a degree in accounting and took the biology course because he is interested in the subject. He said virtual reality is an added benefit.
A new way to learn
The hope with virtual reality experiences is that students will learn science and develop skills in new ways, while engaging with the kinds of problems they are asked to solve.
ASU junior Davis Wray is one of the “pod operators,” meaning he welcomes students to the virtual reality room and prepares them for the experience. Wray, a computer systems engineering specialist, did this as student work and said it got him excited about the capabilities of virtual reality.
“I remember my first day around all the tech…it’s great novel and all. All the students, basically everyone that comes by, it’s their first experience of virtual reality, so it’s really great to to be able to introduce it to them and help them explore this other reality that we’re creating for it,” he said. “I just wish I had that when I was a bio student.”
For students, it is already a normal part of their studies.
Jarrell Tan, an IT junior who works as a pod operator, said the first time he experienced virtual reality was “indescribable”.
“Learning through virtual reality is definitely a new experience, so you definitely capture more and remember more of what you’ve been through,” he said.
Tan said students who come in are usually “amazed and surprised” at how cool it is the first few times, but it soon becomes part of their school routine.
More VR courses in the future?
ASU students in the coming semesters could see Dreamscape Learn virtual reality in more biology courses — and potentially in a range of other majors as well.
If the results are promising for this semester’s pilot, the virtual reality components could extend to these students’ future biology classes, Angiletta said. He suggested the possibility that the rest of the program could restructure around this model if it works.
“They just passed their freshman year and they had this amazing experience where they went to an intergalactic wildlife sanctuary and they worked out all these problems and they felt like they were rewarded with this experience, they learned all these skills , but now they’re going back to the old regular program where they’re sitting in the classroom and listening to someone talk to them,” he said.
And if virtual reality helps students learn biology, why not chemistry, or math, or even the arts? Math students could see equations come to life and instead of struggling with math and quitting STEM majors as a result, maybe they would excel, Angiletta said.
“Maybe I would prefer to learn art history by going to art museums that are famous all over the world. Or maybe if I’m learning acting, I’d like to go see a famous play in a Greek amphitheater and experience it,” he said.
“It gives you the ability to do things that you can’t do in a classroom and experience them in different, more realistic ways.”
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