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Virtual Reality, Real Science

Virtual ecosystems and technology-enhanced curricula can build a deeper scientific literacy in middle-schoolers

November 25, 2014
Two students participating in ecomuve

The pond is alive with birdsong and duck sounds. You can wade into the water and measure its temperature and quality. You can track fish populations and observe microscopic life. About the only thing you can’t do in EcoMUVE — a virtual world where ecosystem science comes to life — is feel the mud between your toes. (And there’s no need to worry about ticks.)

Developed by Professor Christopher Dede and Associate Professor Tina Grotzer, EcoMUVE (the acronym stands for “multi-user virtual environment”) is a four-week curriculum for students in grades 6 through 8 that features two immersive, simulated environments — a pond and a forest. Through a largely self-directed process of inquiry and exploration, students develop hypotheses, test their interpretations, and step into the shoes of an ecosystem scientist faced with an ecological mystery. (To download a teaching manual, other resources, and the two EcoMUVE modules, educators can register to gain access.)

Find Your Own Adventure

The project draws on Grotzer’s earlier work on the repertoire of causal concepts that students need to master in order to understand a complex world. That work informs a set of widely used science curricula she developed, which can be downloaded at Causal Patterns in Science. EcoMUVE also builds on Dede’s interest in virtual and shared learning environments, as exemplified by earlier projects like River City, a science-based interactive computer simulation designed for middle-schoolers.

Unlike other inquiry- or problem-based lessons that start by telling students what to focus on, “EcoMUVE invites students to explore, as in a real ecosystem, where eventually they find a puzzle to investigate,” Grotzer says. “Students come in and move around, they walk in the water. Then they notice, ‘Hey, there’s a camera tool here, and there are a lot of creatures, so we can start taking pictures.’ They see that the pictures are going into guidebooks that give them information about the creatures. So they just start collecting.”

As kids get to know the environment, EcoMUVE introduces new tools, and kids start to take measurements and gather data. What they don’t know at first, but soon learn, is that the system is collecting their findings in a data chart, which will help them graph relationships and patterns.

Students explore these environments for a period of eight or 10 virtual days. There is a calendar tool that lets them travel to different days and gather information over time, so that they can track the roots of complex phenomena.

On one day, in the pond module, students see a large number of fish floating on the surface of the water. It’s a die-off — but why? “The first thing students tend to do is look for a local cause, typically one that is intentional and event-like,” says Grotzer. These are common default assumptions about the nature of causality. But as students continue observing, collecting data, and testing their evidence and their claims, they move beyond those assumptions. They “start to recognize how action at a distance, in this case fertilizer that is applied in the larger watershed, can affect conditions locally, and that it is an unintentional process that happens over time,” Grotzer continues.

Building Environmental Literacy

EcoMUVE was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education. A second phase of research, funded by the National Science Foundation and Qualcomm’s Wireless Research Initiative, introduced an augmented reality experience to complement the virtual reality of the earlier phase. EcoMOBILE (Mobile Outdoor Blended Immersive Learning Environment) puts students into real-world ecosystems and equips them with mobile devices that let them access interactive media such as video, audio, 3-D models, and animations to learn about the ecosystem they’re visiting and to answer specific and open-ended questions about their data-collection activities.

“EcoMUVE is like a flight simulator,” Dede told NSF’s Discoveries last year. “We can create experiences not found in nature. EcoMOBILE is like flying the plane. You can get very good in the simulator, but ultimately you want to get people to be effective in the real world."

As with EcoMUVE, he and Grotzer are working with a research team that includes Shari Metcalf, Amy Kamarainen, and Shane Tutwiler, Ed.M.’07, Ed.D.’14. In a variety of pilot studies, “the kids have been very excited to use the smartphone devices, and it’s amazing to see how quickly they can pick it up and use it to its full capacity. They were figuring things out and trouble-shooting together,” says Kamarainen, the EcoMOBILE Project co-director.

They are now starting a third phase, which they’re calling EcoXPT, where they are working with ecosystem scientists, teachers, and students to find age-appropriate ways to add authentic forms of experimentation into the mix. “We want to create greater environmental literacy,” says Grotzer. “So much of environmental study has been about advocacy for the outdoors, or nature ed. But ecosystem scientists have a variety of techniques for understanding the environment, and we want to help students learn to think more like these experts.”

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