Teaching Science Through Virtual Reality

Project Idea and Relevance

In our most recent Senior Capstone class, my project group talked about teaching the sciences in VR, particularly physics. Achieving easier access to science learning is very important in the U.S., as discussed in my last post. Also, over time, using VR for science could minimize material costs and would definitely minimize waste: rather than need to dispose of and then replenish the same chemicals and beakers when they break or run out, a school could buy a VR headset once and use it for 10 years. Remember that technology gets cheaper as it loses newness, so the initial cost of a VR set will likely decrease in the next few years, probably more than the cost of the beakers, chemicals, and other lab equipment needed over a ten year period, or five year period, or less.

But, does VR make the education better? This is what we wish to determine in our capstone project, and we are limiting the scope to ask: does a virtual environment produce better student collaboration? In the coming weeks, we will have to discuss how to measure collaboration – amount of body movement? Number of words said? Completeness of end product? – as well as the format of the study – should VR participants be in separate rooms, while control group (no VR) participants must be in the same room? Should we use a within- or between-subjects study design? We will explore these questions very soon and come to decisions about them.

Existing VR Science Lessons

Virtual lab pipette

Michael Bodekaer created a virtual lab called Labster that can be used on a smart phone in a VR headset or on laptop or tablet, and he gave a wonderful TED Talk about it. Below are some of the points he made:

  • Students can’t check Facebook during VR – one could therefore argue that VR can more immersive than real life, at least in the university classroom setting, where students have easy access to distracting, personal devices.
  • The Stanford study he explained found a 76% increase in post-test scores when using a virtual laboratory (as compared to the control group, who did not use VR), and a 101% increase in learning effectiveness when coupled with teacher coaching. So, according to this study, VR does improve learning.

Study: students learn better in virtual lab

  • VR minimizes space needed for equipment: “Who carries an electron machine in their pocket?”
  • Students are able to see and interact only with content that is related to the current task, not with a cluttered and distracting classroom/lab.
  • The app he developed works without a VR headseat (laptops and iPads), to ensure that not everyone needs a VR headset to use the app. This approach, in my opinion, allows for a quasi-immersive experience that removes the impossible-for-some-schools economic investment in buying a bunch of VR headsets.
  • Student experience level can be lower than currently required for lab use because a virtual lab is lower-risk than a real lab with, for example, dangerous chemicals. Thus, with VR, students can experience higher-level, hands-on science lessons at a younger age than they currently are allowed to.

Other examples:

  • The book Teaching, Learning, and Visual Literacy: The Dual Role of Visual Representation by Billie Eilam talks about VR in education, and in science education in particular. It is available on Google Books.
  • These shorter videos are meant for younger kids (i.e., not high school or college students).
  • I can’t tell much about this app, but it may be a good app to use for our capstone study.
  • This app also may be good for our study.


Virtual Reality Could Solve Teacher Shortage

Capstone Update

I now have a capstone project group together, and we will be working on virtual reality (VR) in the classroom! My teammates are Julia and Ted – their names here link to their blogs. Our first idea is to replicate the immersive teaching shown in the TV show The Magic School Bus in order to maximize student engagement, interest, and understanding.

Magic School Bus in the arctic

Virtual Reality and Teacher Shortage

In reading my classmates’ blogs this week, Ted’s post inspired a new idea relating to the purpose of VR in the classroom: the shortage of teachers in hard-to-reach locations. I read a few articles on this problem, and apparently it extends throughout the country, particularly in STEM subjects, foreign language, and special education (CNN). The Washington Post reports a wider range of affected subjects.

Number of states reporting teacher shortages in STEM, special ed, and foreign language

The teacher shortage could be partially solved by VR activities. In response to Ted’s original post, with VR your teacher doesn’t have to physically be present in your school, nor live near your (tiny) town, to teach your class. They could be in an entirely different country and still wholly participate in the virtual environment.

Secondly, CNN reported that low teachers’ salaries is one reason that math and science college graduates are more likely to turn to industry, where more money is, than to academia. With VR, teachers could earn more money because they could fill in teaching gaps at faraway schools, without needing to lose time traveling between the schools. A teacher in Town1 who has a free block 12-1pm could teach class virtually in Town2 and be “back” for her 1:15pm class back in Town1. Also, people working in industry could teach a class or two from work – an employee could book a conference room, teach for an hour, and then go back to their desk to continue work. Basically, VR increases the accessibility of qualified teachers to areas that need them without drastically reducing the “real” feel of the classroom (as with online classes).

Lastly, VR could give teachers and students cultural exposure since participants can come from anywhere. This also increases the ability to find a native speaker for foreign language classes, who may even be currently be living in the culture about which they are teaching!

I am excited about the prospect of VR in the classroom, and the positive effects it could have on the world’s teaching system.


Montessori and Technology

First off, I found a book called Optimal Learning Environments to Promote Student Engagement, by David J. Shernoff, which I should definitely read (at least partially) for this class.

Now, back to Montessori. I’ve read a couple research articles this week, and I’d like to highlight one of them. It was about using technology in the Montessori classroom.

“Effects of iPad Tablets on Private Montessori Education” (Wickramasinghe, 2016)

In this study, first-, second-, and third-grade teachers who use iPads in the classroom were interviewed about their observations and opinions on the impact of iPads on their students’ learning. Teachers reported that iPads improve student…

  • Motivation
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Attention/Focus
  • Engagement
  • Productivity
  • Participation
  • Organization
  • Excitement about learning
  • Academic achievement

Another improvement is that the iPad can produce immediate feedback, whereas some traditional methods cannot. In this study, the feedback was given to the teachers only, since first-through-third-grade children are probably too young to reflect on iPad feedback and self-improve. With older students, however, this feedback may be shared with them directly and may be useful for rapid self-improvement, without the delay of the teacher needing to, for example, grade quizzes.

Teachers reported using iPad apps to teach and review student progress, such as:

They also reported that using AirPlay to display information on a screen was great for collaboration. I’m excited that this is a finding, since my first post was about interactive displays, and I would love to integrate Montessori and displays in my project.

More about Montessori Classroom Materials

I’m back on the American Montessori Society website, this time on the Learning Materials page. Here are some core things that the page highlights about materials (I’m loving bullet points today):

  • Fragile materials are good for teaching children to value and take care of items that may break. They have no reason to learn to interact with items carefully if those items are always unbreakable. To apply this to technology: well, technology is fragile.
  • Teachers demonstrate the way that the children should handle the objects (e.g., with care, as above). They are role models. With technology, isn’t it WAY better when your teacher knows how to use Trunk (for example) as well as you do, rather than feeling like the teacher is “forcing” you to use something they don’t themselves understand or (perhaps) value? Yeah, me too.
  • “Each learning material teaches one skill or concept at a time.” With university students, “one skill” will have a much more complex definition than with elementary schoolers, but I believe the same principle should stand. You can’t learn Punnet squares and standard deviations simultaneously.
  • The child discovers the task. (Side note: this is also a tactic in mediation – it is less effective for the mediator to give the parties an idea/answer than it is for the mediator to lead the parties to the answer they were thinking of, since then the parties feel it was their idea and that they are smart, etc.) This idea could also be helpful with university students, and could be encouraged through interactive activities in which the students discover what works and what doesn’t and learn from that experience.
  • If he cannot complete the task on his own, “he can try again, ask another child for help, or go to a teacher for suggestions if the work doesn’t look quite right.” Basically, the student should have a support system.
  • “Montessori materials use real objects and actions to translate abstract ideas into concrete form.” I’m not sure that this is always doable for the complex topics that university students cover, but when it is doable to have some physical representation (e.g. graph) or activity, then it’s definitely useful. I think interacting with a smart display would definitely help with this.
  • Promote physical activity in learning and multi-modal learning. Using an interactive display could involve movement if the students must stand up at the board/screen, and uses touch in addition to audio and visual channels.

It seems to me that Montessori theory can be very helpful in redesigning the way that interactive displays are used in a university classroom. I am excited to dive deeper into this (or a similar) topic.


Wickramasinghe, A. (2016). Effects of iPad tablets on private montessori education (Order No. 10155752). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1817664035). Retrieved from https://login.ezproxy.library.tufts.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1817664035?accountid=14434

Why is Montessori Successful?

In our last Capstone class meeting, we had a guest, Jesse Martin, speak to us about how to improve classroom learning through design. One point he emphasized was that it is not our tools that are imperfect, but that we need to improve the way students use those tools. Instructors should teach in a way that aligns with how humans learn, rather than in the way that instructors would like to explain it.

This point made me wonder about the Montessori method, which I myself experienced up through first grade. What makes Montessori-style teaching – with essentially the same materials as “normal” teaching – so successful?

Infant touches fuzzy toy on shelf

The first thing the American Montessori Society homepage explains is that the Montessori teaching approach is child-centered. This is exactly what we Human Factors practitioners advocate for any user, and here the child is the user of the classroom. Below is an excerpt from their site:

“It is a view of the child as one who is naturally eager for knowledge and capable of initiating learning in a supportive, thoughtfully prepared learning environment. It is an approach that values the human spirit and the development of the whole child—physical, social, emotional, cognitive.”

The first sentence in the above quote echoes Theory Y of motivation, which states that people are mostly self-motivated because they naturally seek fulfillment and inner satisfaction from their work, rather than needing an external push from a peer or superior (Theory X). This article also explains that leaders (e.g. teachers) who use Theory Y have increased follower (e.g. student) trust in them, and increased collaboration between followers, which are both important for classroom learning.

The leader, however, should enforce some sort of structure to keep the followers on track. In Montessori, for example, a classroom’s four walls and layout of learning objects is a structure, and teachers implement “multiage groupings that foster peer learning, uninterrupted blocks of work time, and guided choice of work activity” as guides for classroom activity. I feel this may be the right amount of Theory X for a classroom setting.

The second sentence in the italicized quote above emphasizes “the development of the whole child.” I find it interesting that this seems totally normal for small children, but when I think of “teaching for the development of the whole university student,” it no longer sounds right. Is this because the current university education style does not support much inner interdisciplinary-ness and so we don’t expect it, or because overall personal growth (as opposed to specialized growth) should not be a goal for university teaching/learning? I believe that college is an important time to introspect and to grow, and so that overall personal growth should still be emphasized in university classrooms.

So, what can we pull from Montessori and apply to university teaching, in order to improve classroom learning? How can students engage with the tools they currently have (e.g. notebooks, laptops, classroom layout) in a new way that fosters independent, exploratory learning?

First brainstorm: which product?

Introduction to this blog

Hi readers! This blog is written for and about my Human Factors Senior Capstone class. The theme for this year is “The Classroom of the Future,” meaning that we will form teams to redesign a classroom product – this could be furniture, displays, virtual reality, telepresence, and who knows what else – with the goal of improving student learning.

Interactive projections = cheaper touch screen

In our first class meeting last week, our professor James Intriligator mentioned that learning technology is certainly wonderful and constantly advancing, but is expensive. This made me wonder: how can we get something like a SMART Board™ into poorly-funded schools? What would be a cheaper way to give students a touch-interactive display?

The (probably) cheapest option I could think of was those interactive projections at the mall.

Interactive projection on mall floor

So, my next questions were: how do they work? Are they feasible for classroom learning?

To answer the first question, the system works by adding a sensor to a projector and reading the motion (or shadow) in front of the projection, which is then processed by computer software. What’s nice about interactive projectors is that they don’t require a fancy (and expensive) screen like the SMART Board™, and the teacher can change the location of the projection depending on the activity (e.g., on the wall, on the floor, etc.).

MotionMagic: computer + software + sensor + projector

One problem, however, is that because the sensor reads movement and shadow, it may be difficult to achieve precise selection and movement of objects in the projection. This would make writing difficult, for example. One brand, Lumo Play, claims that their system “supports motion, gesture, or touch interaction,” but I cannot find an explanation on their website of how touch interaction would work.

Currently, these interactive projectors are largely focused on games – BEAM, for example, advertises only games on their home page, and the MotionMagix™ website briefly mentions non-game uses – corporate, not educational – only once. I have faith that it would be fairly easy to incorporate learning into these systems, however.

360º video for situational training 

Another completely unrelated idea is to incorporate 360-degree interactive video into the classroom, inspired by The New York Times’ 360 Videos. In these videos, the viewer can click and drag to change what they see, or move their phone around in space as if it were the camera, to change what they see.

In my opinion, this method would be particularly useful for situational learning. What I mean by “situational learning” is a scenario like this:

You are training to be a surgeon. In an operating room, your tools are in various drawers around the room, and there are alarms and other people around you, too. The door may be behind you, or the chalkboard where nurses tally the materials you have and haven’t used, or something else important.

In this example, a traditional 2-dimensional classroom screen representation is not adequate to convey the full picture and feel of the scenario. A 360º interactive video approach could bring “experience” time to the classroom, thereby increasing experience-type learning perhaps in the place of traditional lectures.