Virtual reality field trips give students advanced adventure
It’s a February afternoon. We’re in a Brooklyn classroom. Sixteen-year-old Taylor Engler comes face to face with a cow. But it was all in her head.
She was taken there by a virtual reality headset. It took the Berkeley Carroll School junior and eight classmates to an upstate New York farm. The farm was 250 miles away. The technology means field trips are no longer limited by the length of a bus ride.
"I was not expecting it to be right in my face!" That's what Taylor said after peeling off the purple headset and finding herself back inside her city classroom.
Students across the country are taking virtual reality "trips." They are deep-sea diving. They are observing medical operations. They are even swimming through the human circulatory system. They are using gadgets that are becoming more available in both cost and content.
Teachers say it's another way to engage the iPhone generation of students. It can enhance their understanding. It can improve their grades.
"It instantly grabs the students." That's according to Colin Jones. He teaches science. He teaches in the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District. He has used a system called zSpace to dissect cells. He has walked goggled students through the boreal forest with a Google app called Expeditions.
"It's something that can be done in a period or two," he said. "But it could take even a week sometimes when you're doing a lab."
Engler and classmates virtually walked through barns and fields in Watkins Glen. They stretched their arms toward videotaped pigs and cows only they saw. It was an "outing" that otherwise would not have happened. This is because of the limits of time and staffing. That's according to adviser Lily Adler.
"It's different than watching video because you can have more than one perspective. You can actually move," Taylor said during the lesson by animal rights group Farm Sanctuary.
Not only move, but also feel, said Richard Lamb. He studies how the brain processes information. He studies it at the University at Buffalo Neurocognition Science Lab. The physical effects of virtual reality become clear in the lab. Subjects standing on solid ground teeter on stories-high virtual scaffolding. They experience motion sickness without moving.
"Some of the research we're doing has actually shown that what you experience in virtual reality has very similar, if not the same, physiological responses that you would get if you were doing the actual activity," Lamb said. "Heart rate, cognition, breathing, everything."
What effect does it have on learning? He said it improves interest. It improves understanding. And it improves recall.
It's unknown how many classrooms have or will adopt the technology. But experts say it's still relatively rare. Individual headsets that require a user's phone can cost as little as $20 or $30. But systems and software for classes run into the thousands of dollars. Early complaints about a lack of good software are fading. Because more companies are entering the market. But the rules for use haven't necessarily caught up to the technology.
In New York, simulated lab experiments don't count toward the state's hands-on lab time requirements.
Experts say the sciences are an area where virtual reality holds particular promise for classrooms.
"The biggest hindrance, I think, is going to be the quality of that experience, how closely it mimics the physical world." That's according to David Evans. He is an executive director. He works at the National Science Teachers Association.
But, he said, "the ability to do dangerous things, the ability to run many, many more cases in a simulation space as opposed to the real physical space represents a huge learning opportunity."
Lamb taught chemistry. He agreed.
"Too often in schools, when we do things with laboratories, it’s…you mix this together, you mix that together and you get this outcome. And if you don't get that outcome, you did something wrong. But we don't have enough resources for you to redo it," he said. In virtual reality, "all I do is hit reset on the computer. I don't have to actually use chemicals."
Both Lamb and Evans stressed using the technology to enrich real-world experiences. They shouldn’t replace them. In the real world, any number of subtle factors can affect an outcome.
"We have to remain anchored in the actual world," Evans cautioned. "The real world is the one that we really need to explain."