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21 Aug 2020

VR in the Classroom: A Foundation in Educational Pedagogy

VR in the Classroom: A Foundation in Educational Pedagogy

Imagine escorting your class on an exploration of an alien world, or on a dive to the Great Barrier Reef, or on a microscopic journey through the human body? Although this might seem like a futurist’s idea of the science classroom, it’s not. These experiences, along with thousands of additional synthetic realities, are forming the foundation of today’s educational application of virtual reality.

Since the 2014 release of Google Cardboard, VR has expanded from the bastion of high-tech laboratories and financially-exclusive amusement pods to a more common and affordable experience. But how does this naturally engaging technology relate to the educational arena, specifically to a standards-based approach to teaching the upper elementary and middle grade bands?

In a climate of budget restrictions, safety issues and highly prescribed standards-based curriculum, the ability to integrate traditional field trips into our teaching experience has declined. With this reduction in out-of-school opportunities, we have compromised some of the natural engagement that has long been a tool in our teaching arsenal.  In this blog, I will focus specifically on the use of VR as it pertains to science and engineering.

As profiled in 2012 document by the US National Research Council (NRC), A Framework for K-12 Science Education;

Research suggests that personal interest, experience, and enthusiasm – critical to children’s learning of science at school or in other settings – may also be linked to later educational and career choices (p. 28).

Likewise, this approach to student engagement and motivation is mirrored in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) released in its final draft in 2013. Celebrating and reaching ALL students is a critical precept of successful science education! VR offers us another potential tool in our arsenal of classroom strategies. For this blog posting, I will focus more on the big picture of effective science teaching and drilldown to specifics of the NGSS three-dimensional approach in upcoming blogs. 

As instructors of K-12 science around the world are aware, you first need to capture a student’s interest in order to establish the most effective learning landscape. Once that motivational “hook” is set, then the rest forms a logical sequence for teacher interaction. Perhaps, this is best articulated in the instructional model known as “The “5 Es”. This term stands for Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. 

It’s easy to infer the role of VR spanning several tenets of the 5E model. Its use to first engage students in learning may seem almost moot. Who doesn’t want to have fun as they explore new worlds? When available, the excitement of entering and interacting in a synthetic environment is a powerful strategy for engaging disinterested students. Their expressions of wonderment attest to VR’s novel aspect that extends far beyond the student’s current world of passively watching videos or engaging in electronic games.

Let’s get back to that second E; Exploration. The very nature of the VR experience is exploration! Not only is this immersive adventure a powerful way of discovering and uncovering core ideas, but it is very much student directed. In its most basic rendition, the viewer takes control of the digital immersion, and control where they are and what they are experiencing.  No longer must the instructor convey the knowledge. This shift of a teacher’s role to that of VR guide, exemplifies the NGSS shift of instructor from pontificator of facts to facilitator of the student’s learning process.

VR experiences not only “pump up” students’ engagement level, but when appropriately selected will address the multiple dimensions of contemporary science education. Imagine having students construct an understanding of MS-ESS3-3, Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment based upon a shared VR experience that includes “diving” on healthy and bleached coral reefs. 

VR can also help level the playing field for students who have had few opportunities to travel.  Imagine escorting a class of inner city middle schoolers who have ventured little beyond urban boundaries to the Grand Canyon, or to the Himalayas, or under the ocean! And don’t forget, VR shatters the limits of scale and time.  How about viewing our planet’s motions from a vantage outside of Earth’s orbit? At the opposite end of scale, perhaps your introduction to the crossing cutting concept of Structure and function, begins with a student exploring cell organelles face-to-face as they journey through a virtual cell?

Those Next Generation Science standards elevates the importance of the engineering discipline to that we have traditionally allocated to the life, physical and earth and space sciences. Therefore, for many teachers “engineering” is a new territory.  Once again, VR steps into the void. It offers an alternative strategy for addressing the basic tents of engineering along with profiling traditionally under-represented populations. If you survey the freely accessible cache of Google Expeditions, you will uncover an assortment of VR experiences centered around the experiences of a diverse group of engineers and scientists. By celebrating this heterogeneous workforce, you’ll be able to address additional 21st century educational tenets of inclusion, diversity and career choices for all students.

Michael is a globally respected renaissance educator, speaker, TV host and science education author.  A former marine biologist, Michael celebrated his passion in education as a K-12 classroom teacher for nearly ten years. Michael has written over 25 trade books and coauthored over 60 textbooks. For decades, Michael has been a STEM and educational advisor to several countries and dozens of school systems around the world. These days, his interests go beyond classroom walls into the synthetic world, where he is at the forefront of developing Virtual Reality field trips.

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