Elementary school teachers at Abraham Lincoln School in Oak Park, Ill., have access to a wider variety of high-tech teaching tools than most teachers. That’s because their school is the first in the country to house a semi-permanent virtual reality unit.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have installed a virtual reality unit at the school. The researchers are testing the students to find out if the technology is an effective teaching tool.

The leaders of the study—Tom Moher, associate professor of computer science, Andy Johnson, assistant professor of computer science, and Stellan Ohlsson, associate professor of psychology—have asked the teachers to integrate virtual reality into their lesson plans.

“Virtual reality, for us, is another tool for visualization, like the pictures in a textbook or the globe on the teacher’s desk, or the blackboard, or filmstrips,” Johnson said. “We want to give the teachers another tool that they can use when it’s appropriate.”

Virtual reality can illustrate things in a way current two-dimensional media cannot. It’s interactive, immersive, and life-like.

“Our aim is to find out whether this advanced visual technology can have a positive impact on learning,” Moher said. However, he cautioned that the researchers are not hyping the technology “as some magical solution” to education.

Since this technology is “still very fragile” and costs a quarter of a million dollars, not many schools will be able to afford virtual reality in the near future.

But “within a decade, this technology will be at a [price] level that school districts can buy into,” Moher predicted.

Before schools can afford to purchase virtual reality equipment, Moher said, researchers want to know how virtual learning can be used to improve education in the K-12 classroom.

He said they’d like to prevent what happened with computers, where schools bought them without any ideas of what to do with them.

The research project is funded by the National Science Foundation. The unit, called the ImmersaDesk, was developed by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The ImmersaDesk is available commercially through FakeSpace Systems Inc.

CAVE

The ImmersaDesk is the baby sister of CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment), another virtual reality unit EVL developed.

Both units operate using the same concepts, but the ImmersaDesk is a smaller, portable version with only one 4-foot by 5-foot projector screen angled at 45 degrees. CAVE is room-sized, with four rear-mounted projectors that display images on the walls and the floor. The ImmersaDesk offers a semi-immersed experience, whereas CAVE provides a fully immersed feeling that surrounds the user with graphics and blocks out the real world.

Unlike the red and blue paper glasses used at 3-D movies, students using these virtual reality units wear lightweight shutter glasses. The projector displays two images: one for the left eye and one for the right eye. A shutter on each of the liquid crystal lenses flashes 120 times per second to separate what the left and right eye see. This process allows the eyes to see a three-dimensional image, Moher said.

Both units also have infrared sensors that track the position of the user’s head and hand. This enables the software to calculate and update images from the user’s point of view. Both systems are capable of running the same software, called CAVE Library Software.

Groups of three or four students use the ImmersaDesk at the same time, so it creates a social learning space. Users have a hand tool called the “wand” that features a joystick for navigating and three buttons which can be programmed for interacting.

Originally, researchers tried bringing students into their virtual reality lab at the university, but they found their research had no validity because the children were not in an actual learning environment.

“We try to integrate [our studies] with the school curriculum,” Moher said, to ensure the learning is meaningful. The researchers plan to stay at Lincoln Elementary for the next three years to make sure the information they are collecting is accurate.

Most of their research is qualitative. “We watch a lot of kids do a lot of stuff,” Moher said.

One of the programs the researchers tested, called The Round Earth, taught first- and second-graders the concept that the earth is round.

“Telling a young child that the earth is spherical comes up against a lot of baggage the child carries around that the earth is flat,” Johnson said.

Using virtual reality, the researchers put the children on an asteroid to demonstrate what it was like to walk on a spherical body. The students thought they would fall off, Moher said.

Before the students took part in the program, researchers asked them to describe their understanding of the earth’s shape through drawings, conversation, and clay. After their participation in the Round Earth program, the researchers gave them the same test a day or two later, and again four months later.

“Our initial Round Earth work suggests that the combination of the virtual reality experience and discussion afterward was valuable in changing the ‘flat earthers’ into ‘spherical earthers,'” Johnson said. “In all of this work, we don’t see virtual reality acting alone. It’s a teacher using virtual reality that promotes learning.”

3-D worlds

Another part of their research, called QuickWorlds, focuses on teachers’ requests for 3-D models to use for teaching their curriculum. QuickWorlds gives the researchers an understanding of the various ways teachers can incorporate virtual reality technology into their lessons.

Since virtual reality is still in the development stage, Moher said, the researchers have to create software programs as they go along. In a week or so, they can build interactive, animated, three-dimensional models.

“Teachers have always used models,” Moher said. “Some are too big to fit in the classroom.”

The physical education teacher asked for a model of a heart that demonstrates blood flow to replace her traditional method of teaching the concept, which involved students carrying blood cells—which were really dodge balls—through heart chambers that she mapped out on paper on the gym floor, Johnson said.

The difficulty in producing virtual worlds varies according to the level of interaction that the program requires. The QuickWorlds, which are relatively easy to develop, have limited interaction, but users can walk around them and manipulate them.

“Kids can cut through the heart and see the internal structure from whatever angle they choose,” Johnson said. “The heart, the bones of the inner ear, et cetera, are hard to see in 2-D and make much more sense when you see them moving appropriately in 3-D.”

Other models the researchers have created for the teachers include a spinning solar system, an iceberg, an ant, and a volcano. Using virtual reality, the possibilities for scientific learning are endless, Moher said.

“A kid living in Chicago can’t experience hills, outer space, or the Arctic,” he said. With virtual reality, these environments can be simulated effectively, and children can practice making observations, counting, or searching for things.

“Not everyone can visit a Greek temple, and nobody can go back in time to see that Greek temple when it was just completed,” Johnson said, but “virtual reality can give us a taste of that.”

The technology relies on the concept that learning is better when students actually see and experience a concept, rather than talking about it or looking at it in a book. Virtual reality can provide the same sensations as doing and seeing, because it is interactive.

Considering the technology is still in an experimental stage, Moher said, the researchers have had a number of problems with the equipment. Installing it in the school was difficult.

“It’s heavy and big, and the school didn’t have any elevators,” Moher said. They’ve also had to overcome problems with power, cooling, and lighting.

The researchers needed a dark space to operate the ImmersaDesk—and that wasn’t easy to find in a school. They had to hang dark curtains.

Finding a location to house the virtual reality unit also was a problem. “The school is crushed for space,” Moher said. The room it occupies also holds reference books and special education lessons.

The researchers found scheduling with teachers to be trying, as was getting permission from parents to allow their children to participate. One of the side effects of virtual reality is that it can induce queasiness, similar to motion sickness.

“Your body tells you you’re standing still, but your eyes are telling you you’re moving,” Moher said. Of 150 students tested so far, only one has vomited, he reported.

The researchers who operate the machinery have to be sensitive to children who start swaying or adjusting their glasses a lot. Before each session, the researchers remind students that they might get sick and what the warning signs are.

There are other virtual reality learning experiments going on across the country, but the experiment at Abraham Lincoln School is the only one focused on elementary school applications, Moher said.

Abraham Lincoln School
http://www.op97.k12.il.us/schools/lincoln/

University of Illinois at Chicago’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory
http://www.evl.uic.edu

Round Earth Project
http://www.evl.uic.edu/roundearth

FakeSpace Systems Inc.
http://www.fakespacesystems.com/