Can a Hollywood-backed VR company make science labs more effective?

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Can a Hollywood-backed VR company make science labs more effective?

As teachers are redesigning a lab unit for an introductory biology course at Arizona State University, they receive advice from Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood veterans on how to help students form emotional connections with “frog-cats.” fictitious.

The university is building the course material as part of a partnership with a virtual reality entertainment company called Dreamscape Immersive, run by Walter Parkes, who produced Hollywood blockbusters such as “Men in Black,” “Minority Report,” and ” Gladiator “. And stepping into this experimental biology lab that Parkes is helping to build will require students to don a virtual reality headset and suspend disbelief.

Leaders of the effort demonstrated their new virtual reality classroom last week at the ASU GSV Summit in San Diego, seeking feedback to improve the material and trying to build excitement for their new joint venture, which they hope to eventually sell the materials to other schools and universities.

The demonstration classroom that was set up in a showroom at the conference had six desks arranged in a circle. Each participant sat at a desk while the attendees helped them put on a heavy virtual reality headset and hold a plastic sensor in each hand. A joystick that looked like it could be used for a flight simulator was also on each table.

“If you have items on your desk, be sure to remove them before you begin,” warned the staff member who located us all. Otherwise, he added, you could accidentally remove them while the VR headset is on, since “you won’t be able to see them in the virtual world” (because using the headset means blocking the “real world” entirely).

Once all the gear was on, we were transported to what looked like a discarded scene from a Jurassic Park movie. Each student was piloting a small flying research capsule through an “alien zoo” of fantastic creatures. When I turned my head, the view changed to match where I was looking, and I could see the other five students in their flying capsules, and at one point I collided with one of them, pulling me back a bit.

The premise is that students are researchers at a “fictional alien sanctuary for the galaxy’s endangered species” and must collect data on the types of animals they find. One such species is the cat-frog, and in fact a storyteller’s voice explains that a young cat-frog at the zoo is acting lethargic. The question asked of the participants is, what happens to the poor alien creature?

The user can interact in the world, but everything is highly guided. Participants fly the capsules with the joystick, but are instructed to follow a set path marked by floating circles. And when it comes time to analyze the sick cat frog, users are asked to pick up a certain medical instrument from a menu of options, but then the user simply clicks a button and watches the actual data collection. It’s like watching an immersive movie where the viewer has to click “next” from time to time to continue.

One of the other people who attended the demonstration with me was Jewyl Alderson Clarke, Integrated Curriculum Coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education. She has evaluated many other virtual reality applications for education and was excited to try this demo. But he said he wished there had been opportunities for richer interactions at the alien zoo.

“It was really just a button-press type of experience to continue,” he said. “There could be an opportunity for students to really choose what tests they are giving the frog cat,” he added. “With virtual reality, the good thing is that you can turn that little capsule into a TARDIS, and behind them there could be a giant laboratory, even if you are in a small capsule, you can play with reality.”

ASU project leaders say they heard that feedback and are working to add more interaction as they build the rest of the materials for the virtual lab.

That development is on a fast track. The plan is to incorporate the new virtual reality classroom and “alien zoo” modules into an introductory biology course at ASU for the spring semester, said Lisa Flesher, senior director at EdPlus, which is leading the online efforts at TO ITS. That classroom will have two groups of 12 virtual reality-equipped desks each, so that up to two dozen students can go through the experience at the same time.

And ASU leaders emphasized that the series of virtual reality experiences of 10 minutes each are just one part of the lab experience, as students will come out of their cat-frog interaction with data points that they will then have to analyze. and discuss with your classmates in a more traditional classroom setting.

“When you get out of VR, everyone who has moved into VR has data that you can download and put into Excel,” explained Mike Angilletta, ASU’s assistant director of learning innovation. “You have to work as a team and you have to communicate.”

In a public talk at the ASU GSV Summit, ASU President Michael Crow made a personal speech for the new virtual reality classroom, arguing that the hope is that it will help more students succeed in STEM subjects that are a challenge for many students.

“We want to eliminate the notion that these are difficult courses,” he said. “They are not difficult, they are difficult to teach.”

“People have long talked about educational entertainment – how you take something that’s entertaining that activates certain parts of the thought process and links it to education in a meaningful way,” Crow added. “What we are looking for is the connection of emotional commitment.”

He was joined on stage by Parkes, the Hollywood producer who leads Dreamscape Immersive, who argued that the emotional connections students make to the material in virtual reality will keep them engaged more than traditional teaching methods.

“What we’re all in the business of doing is getting people involved,” he said. “Whether it has to do with buying a ticket and participating in an educational virtual reality experience for fun or educating people. How do you keep people engaged? “

Origins of the shopping center

You may have seen the virtual reality world of the alien zoo before, but without the scientific goals. This is because the environment was developed for an entertainment experience that is available in shopping malls in Los Angeles, Dallas, Dubai, and elsewhere. Parkes told the ASU GSV Summit session that he developed the alien zoo premise with the help of his friend and former colleague Steven Spielberg.

Alderson Clarke, who has taught science classes in schools in the past, said one of the challenges of ASU’s partnership with Dreamscape Immersive will be to make sure the material is sufficiently adapted from its roots as pure entertainment to be educationally rigorous. .

“I think this is just a new version of what they did for a public hearing at the mall,” he says. “If they want to link this narrative of an alien zoo, then what would be really interesting to say, ‘Well, you’re a new explorer in this new place, so let’s use our knowledge of biology to identify, you know, is this a mammal, or this fits into the different categories that we have here on earth. ‘ They definitely have a narrative, but I don’t think they adapted it to this context. “

She said she will be watching the startup and believes that as virtual reality matures, it will find a place in classrooms.

“I think it’s really interesting because one of the limitations of laboratory work is access to equipment,” he added. “And if all the students could turn around and run something through a GCMS [Gas Chromatography Mass Spectroscopy] device, or you could run all the tests you want in your little virtual reality world, ”that would be truly transformative for education.

“Any new technology will have a learning curve and a development curve,” he added. “I’m glad to see these partnerships grow, but I’m also hopeful that there are educators at the center of it who are able to drive not just the experience, but also the rigor behind the experience.”

One of the developers of ASU’s virtual reality lab material, Angilletta, said their goal is to conduct studies on how well students perform with the new lab compared to traditional teaching, and said an initial test found a 18 percent learning gain.

“I think that’s what is going to sell it,” he said. “I’m not going to try to convince people, other than show them the data.”

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