Can a Hollywood-Backed VR Company Make Science Labs More Effective?

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

The university is building the course material as part of a partnership with a VR entertainment company called Dreamscape Immersive, which is led by Walter Parkes, who produced Hollywood blockbusters including “Men in Black,” “Minority Report” and “Gladiator.” And entering this experimental biology lab Parkes is helping to build will require students to strap on a VR headset—and suspend disbelief.

Leaders of the effort demonstrated their new VR classroom last week at the ASU GSV Summit in San Diego, seeking feedback to improve the material and trying to build buzz for their new joint venture, which hopes to eventually sell the materials to other schools and colleges.

The demo classroom that was set up in an exhibit hall at the conference had six desks arranged in a circle. Each participant sat down at a desk while attendants helped them put on a heavy VR headset and strap a plastic sensor on each hand. A joystick that looked like it could be used for a flight simulator sat on each table as well.

“If you have objects on your desk, make sure you take those off before you start,” warned the staff member getting us all situated. Otherwise, he added, you might accidentally knock them off while the VR headset is on, since “you won’t be able to see those in the virtual world” (because wearing the headset means blocking out the “real world” entirely.)

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

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

The user is allowed to interact in the world, but everything is highly guided. Participants fly the pods with the joystick, but are directed to follow a set path marked by floating circles. And when it is time to analyze the sick frog-cat, users are told to grab a certain medical instrument from a menu of choices, but then the user simply clicks a button and watches the actual data gathering. It’s like watching an immersive film where every now and then the viewer has to click “next” to continue.

One of the other people who went through the demo with me was Jewyl Alderson Clarke, integrated curriculum coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education. She has evaluated plenty of other VR applications for education, and she was excited to try this demo. But she said she wished there had been opportunities for more rich interactions in the alien zoo.

“It was really just a push-button-to-proceed type of experience,” she said. “There could be an opportunity for students to actually choose which tests that they’re giving the frog-cat,” she added. “With VR, the cool thing is you can turn that little pod into a TARDIS, and behind them could be a giant lab, even though you’re in a tiny pod—you can play with reality.”

Leaders of the ASU project 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 VR classroom and “alien zoo” modules into an ASU introductory biology course by the spring semester, said Lisa Flesher, a senior director at EdPlus, which leads online efforts at ASU. That classroom will have two clusters of 12 VR-equipped desks each, so that up to two-dozen students can go through the experience at the same time.

And ASU leaders stressed that the series of 10-minute-each VR experiences are just one part of the lab experience, since students will come away from their interaction with frog-cats with data points they then have to analyze and discuss with classmates in a more traditional classroom setting.

“When you come out of VR, everyone who went into VR has data that you can download and put into Excel,” explained Mike Angilletta, assistant director of learning innovation at ASU. “You have to work in teams, and you have to communicate.”

In a public talk at the ASU GSV Summit, ASU president Michael Crow made a personal pitch for the new VR classroom, arguing that the hope is that it will help more students succeed in STEM subjects that are challenging to many students.

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

“People have talked for a long time about edutainment—how do you take something that’s entertaining that activates certain parts of the mental process and ties it into education in a meaningful way,” added Crow. “What we’re after is the connection of emotional engagement.”

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

“What we’re all in the business of doing is engaging people,” he said. “Whether it has to do with buying a ticket and going into a VR experience for fun, or educating people. How do you keep people engaged?”

Shopping Mall Origins

It’s possible you might have seen the alien zoo VR world before—but without the science objectives. That’s because the environment was developed for an entertainment experience that is available in malls in Los Angeles, Dallas, Dubai and other places. Parkes said at the ASU GSV Summit session that he developed the alien zoo premise with help from his friend and former colleague Steven Spielberg.

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

“I think this is just a re-skin of what they’ve done for a public audience at the mall,” she notes. “If they want to tie in this narrative of an alien zoo, then what would be really interesting to say, ‘Well you’re a new explorer in this new place, and so let’s use our biology knowledge to identify, you know, is this a mammal, or does this fit into the different categories that we have here on earth.’ There’s definitely a narrative they have, but I don’t think they’ve tailored it to this context.”

She said she’ll be watching the new venture and believes that as VR matures, it will find a place in classrooms.

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

“All new technology is going to have a learning curve and a developmental curve,” she added. “I’m glad to see these partnerships rising, but I’m also hopeful that there are educators at the heart of it who are able to drive not only the experience, but the rigor behind the experience.”

One of the developers of ASU’s VR lab material, Angilletta, said his goal is to run studies of how well students perform with the new lab versus traditional teaching, and he said an initial test found an 18 percent learning gain.

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

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