Researchers at the University of Georgia’s Learning and Performance Support Lab are involved in a project that shows what the future might soon hold for education. With a software program called Virtual Gorilla Modeling Tool, the project uses virtual reality (VR) technology to help middle-school children explore gorilla motion and better understand their behavior.

Partly funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation and in conjunction with engineers at Cybernet Systems, the Virtual Gorilla Modeling Project helps students become familiar with the scientific method of deductive reasoning, enabling them to form a better understanding of gorillas by building 3-D dynamic models of gorillas and interacting with them in a virtual environment. Through interactive software and computer hardware, students are able to enter the world of computational science and build models to aid in their understanding of the natural world.

Virtual Gorilla’s inquiry-based approach not only supports the development of a deeper understanding of animal behavior, it offers teachers an exciting new medium for educating students about the natural world. Beginning with live animal observations, followed by video analysis of real gorillas and the development of biomechanical and interactional gorilla models, students become a virtual adolescent gorilla so they can interact with their models, free to roam the computerized landscape and to interact with a virtual family.

Through the use of 3-D goggles, students enter the virtual world of the gorilla and must quickly master techniques such as “running with your eyes” and other specific gorilla postures. The Virtual Gorilla software interprets 80 gorilla sounds and dozens of movements, so that the wrong body language on the part of a student can literally send a virtual dominant male gorilla into a rage.

The Virtual Gorilla Project was first tested at Zoo Atlanta’s Summer Safari Camp Program and is currently part of its world-famous gorilla exhibit and educational program. Here, it offers students a new and exciting approach to learning about animal behavior and helps foster a lifelong interest in science. Last year, more than 300 students tested their newly gained understanding of gorillas and gorilla communication by donning a 3-D headset and interacting with three simulated gorillas.

Research has shown that students do not effectively learn through the use of lectures, 2-D static images, and textual descriptions of scientific phenomena. Creating VR models helps build a deeper understanding of the nature of science concepts and develops the inquiry skills of model-based science.

The idea of the Virtual Gorilla Modeling Project is to take students beyond a traditional descriptive or observational understanding of the gorilla and immerse them in an environment as one of the primates. This gives the students an opportunity to interact and learn gorilla behavior without the dangers posed by the physical world.

Just as amazing as the gorillas themselves is the technology behind the Virtual Gorilla Modeling Project. Because of technology limitations, creating this application wasn’t possible 10 years ago. However, companies such as Cybernet Systems in Ann Arbor, Mich., have made great technological advances in robotics, VR, and distributed network architectures.

Originally developed to meet military training requirements, Cybernet’s OpenSkies technology is the first state-of-the-art, immersive 3-D simulation environment for both training and recreational gaming. The technology not only improved the Virtual Gorilla’s animation and behavior capabilities, but also added to the visual effects of the virtual environment. In conjunction with updated hardware such as a new PC with a video card and a new Head Mounted Display (HMD) and head tracker, the Virtual Gorilla program enables students to virtually interact as a gorilla while other students view the exchange on a screen.

Cybernet’s Virtual Gorilla Toolkit enables students to build virtual models of gorilla motion and social interaction within a VR inquiry framework. Using the Virtual Gorilla Construction Kit, students build virtual models within the context of answering questions about gorilla behavior. The modeling possible with the virtual environment can help students move beyond the purely descriptive to an understanding of the relationships between relevant variables.

With the advances in technology and the willingness of software and hardware vendors to work with universities and schools, new techniques in teaching have evolved at a rapid pace. The new tools that are emerging every day offer students innovative and exciting new ways to learn. As with Virtual Gorilla, VR will continue to change the way students are taught the fundamentals of science and might one day be a primary tool in all classrooms.

(Editor’s Note: For another perspective on the state of science education today, see the Special Feature on page 54.)

Kenneth E. Hay, Ph.D., is a research scientist and associate professor in the University of Georgia’s Learning & Performance Support Lab (http://lpsl.coe.uga.edu).