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Learning in Virtual Environments

The overall goal of this project is to determine if and when immersive virtual environments improve understanding of complex environmental processes when compared to what can be learned from non-immersive computer-based simulations of the same processes. Our hypothesis is that immersive and non-immersive interfaces to simulations support different aspects and different degrees of constructivist pedagogy that are difficult to implement in science classrooms without technology, but which are known to improve the understanding of difficult concepts and principles.

To attain this goal it is necessary to reach two prior objectives. The first of these is at once technical and curricular. It requires the development of both immersive and desktop interfaces to visualizations of a large, complete ecosystem, the Puget Sound region of Washington, using databases and models developed as part of the PRISM (Puget Sound Regional Synthesis Model) project under the direction of Dr. Jeffrey Richey, Co-PI for the project. The content for these immersive and non-immersive simulations will be built around two scenarios: the dispersal of treated sewage in Puget Sound, and flooding in the Snoqualmie River basin. The attainment of this objective will result in visualizations of interactions among terrestrial, marine and atmospheric processes, interfaces to which are sufficiently flexible and configurable to make them adaptable to a variety of learning settings.

The second objective, which embodies the main research component for the project, is to use the simulations to study learning in science curricula. This will take place in two phases. The first phase will use an immersive and a non-immersive simulation to teach concepts and principles about the Puget Sound environment to university undergraduates. The second phase will move the research to grade eleven classrooms. In both phases, the project will seek answers to three research questions. First, assuming that much of what students come to understand about the environment arises from the correction of their misconceptions about it, what misconceptions are most readily corrected by immersive and non-immersive interfaces and, equally important, what new misconceptions are created by the technology? Second, what characteristics of immersive and non-immersive interfaces lead to the most efficient and effective correction of misconceptions and which are most likely to give rise to other misconceptions? Finally, is it possible, using immersive or non-immersive interfaces to simulations, to introduce complex science topics earlier into the curriculum than is commonly the case? Can grade 11 students understand topics normally taught in first-year university courses?

The significance of this project arises from the answers to these research questions. First, we will be able to recommend when the "added value" of immersion, in terms of student understanding, outweighs the higher cost of immersive interfaces. Second, we will be able to recommend teaching and learning strategies, developed from theories of knowledge construction, that need to accompany the computer-based simulations. Third, we will have completed and tested at least three visualizations that relate to undergraduate, and high school science curricula.

Sponsoring Agencies

National Science Foundation
Grant # REC-9873620


Bill Winn <billwinn at>