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8 minutes reading time (1509 words)

Virtual Reality in the Science Lab

“The medium is the message.” (Herbert Marshall McLuhan; Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public intellectual; 1911-1980.)

"If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking." (Richard Buckminster Fuller; American engineer, author, designer, inventor, and futurist; 1895-1983.)

I am very interested in what is “coming down the pike” of technology innovations that may greatly improve our educational system. I recently viewed a TEDx Talk, This Virtual Lab Will Revolutionize Science Class, that literally blew my mind (Bodekaer, October, 2015).

My short IAE Blog entry cannot begin to capture the current and emerging capabilities of relatively inexpensive virtual reality to make major improvements in the quality and effectiveness of science education. However, here are a few of the highlights of Bodekaer’s short video. I assume that you will take the time to view the video.

First, the virtual lab incorporates a Smartphone for each user. Since the annual worldwide production of Smartphones is now over a billion (one per every seven people on earth) the availability of this part of the hardware is no longer a major issue. Remember, today's Smartphone has as much compute power as multimillion dollar supercomuters from 25 to 30 years ago.

Second, the Smartphone is inserted into a relatively inexpensive headset that easily slips on and off one’s head. In the presentation, some of the audience members were provided with the equipment and seemed to quickly adjust to it.

Third, the virtual lab provides users with a very modern science lab with many millions of dollars of equipment. For example, there is a gene sequencer, an electron microscope, and the ability to miniaturize oneself and move around the inside of an object at the level of individual molecules.

Fourth, the virtual lab includes built-in computer-assisted instruction and access to online instructional and research articles.

Fifth, the virtual lab has a “built-in” virtual teacher, but a human teacher can supplement and/or fill this role. That is, a student functioning in this virtual reality laboratory can be interacting with a human (live) teacher who is functioning in the same lab.

While functioning in this virtual laboratory, a student can learn to use the “real” equipment in needed to carry out experiments traditionally done with the actual equipment in a physical lab—but not have to deal with the dangers and expenses of using such equipment in the physical lab.

This aspect of learning to do science laboratory work is not much different from the now routine use of computer simulations by researchers and developers in their everyday work. In essence, the virtual experiments and the computer simulation-based real experiments are in many cases nearly identical. It is possible to do cutting edge research via use of a virtual lab and computer simulations.

Research and Development in Materials Science

The previous section mentioned computer simulations as now being a routine tool of researchers in the sciences. A Scientific American article by Gerbrand Ceder and Kristin Persson describes how the computer has changed the entire field of materials science (Ceder & Persson, 11/19/2013). Quoting from the article:

In 1878 Thomas Edison set out to reinvent electric lighting. To develop small bulbs suitable for indoor use, he had to find a long-lasting, low-heat, low-power lighting element. Guided largely by intuition, he set about testing thousands of carbonaceous materials—boxwood, coconut shell, hairs cut from his laboratory assistant's beard. After 14 months, he patented a bulb using a filament made of carbonized cotton thread.” [Bold added for emphasis.]

Engineered materials such as chip-grade silicon and fiber-optic glass underpin the modern world. Yet [as illustrated by Thomas Edison’s work] designing new materials has historically involved a frustrating and inefficient amount of guesswork.

Streamlined versions of the equations of quantum mechanics—along with supercomputers that, using those equations—can virtually test thousands of materials at a time. This is eliminating much of that guesswork involved in developing new materials. In essence, computerized simulations using the mathematics of quantum mechanics produces a huge increase in the speed of certain types of trial and error in the materials sciences.

Researchers are now using this method, called high-throughput computational materials design, to develop new batteries, solar cells, fuel cells, computer chips, and other technologies.

In Summary

Quoting from Bodekaer’s TEDx presentation:

We basically set out to create a fully simulated, one-to-one, virtual reality laboratory simulator,where the students could perform experimentswith mathematical equationsthat would simulate what would happen in a real-world lab.But not just simple simulations —we would also create advanced simulationswith top universities like MIT,to bring out cutting-edge cancer research to these students.And suddenly, the universities could save millions of dollarsby letting the students perform virtual experimentsbefore they go into the real laboratory.And not only that; now, they could also understand—even on a molecular level inside the machine—what is happening to the machines.And then they could suddenly performdangerous experiments in the labs as well.

But we didn't stop there,because we had seen just how important meaning isfor the students' engagement in the class.So we brought in game designers to create fun and engaging stories.For instance, here in this case, where the students have to solve a mysterious CSI murder caseusing their core science skills.

The developers of this virtual reality system engaged a team of researchers to study 160 college students from Stanford University and Technical University of Denmark. This study provided what I would call “promising” evidence of greatly increased student learning. Moreover, when the virtual reality students had a real human teacher to interact with in the virtual laboratory, learning results were further improved.

Final Remarks

In the preceding paragraph I used the term “promising” because a single research study is inadequate in providing “solid” evidence of the effectiveness of a complex innovation. A number of companies are working on virtual reality systems and beginning to sell their products to the general public. In that sense, this provides strong evidence that virtual reality has now arrived. It is proving to be a marketable entertainment product.

The TEDx Talk provides an example of how virtual reality can be used in education, both in higher education and at the precollege level. A computerized version of the tools students need to learn to use can become the teacher. This idea is discussed in chapter 4 of my book, Technology and Problem Solving: PreK-12 Education for Adult Life, Careers, and Further Education (Moursund, 9/13/2015).

My view of the future of teaching machines is summarized by the statement: The tool is the teacher. I believe this is a paradigm shift that is beginning to occur in education. It will take years of curriculum development, teacher education, and work on convincing our educational system that this is a good way to go. However, there is much that you can do now.

What You Can Do

As a teacher and/or parent, think carefully about the essence of what is illustrated in the virtual lab educational system described above. It represents a huge change from our current emersion of students in a “traditional” oral, pencil-and-paper, and print materials approach to learning and using one’s learning. This current approach has a long history of being relatively “authentic,” since students were being prepared to function as adults in a similar world. For a summary of key ideas in authentic instruction and assessment, see Mueller’s Authentic Assessment Toolbox (n.d.).

However, over recent decades, our traditional education has steadily become less authentic. Your current students are facing an adult life in a world that is substantially different than it was when you were a child. What you can do is to routinely provide examples of this difference as you interact with your students and/or your children. Draw on both their knowledge and your own knowledge of tools such as digital cameras, handheld calculators, Smartphones, video games (these provide good examples of computer simulations), computerized toys (these provide examples of robots and computerized machinery), Web and search engines, Internet, GPS, and voice input/output to a variety of devices.

You and your students/children already use these new technologies effectively in everyday life outside of school. It’s time to bring these tools into the classroom!

References and Resources

Bodekaer, M. (October, 2015). This virtual lab will revolutionize science class. (Video, 11:28.) TEDx Talks. Retrieved 6/4/2016 from

Ceder, G., & and Persson, K. (11/19/2013). How supercomputers will yield a golden age of materials science. Scientific American. Retrieved 8/21/2015 from

Moursund, D. (2016). Improving the world: What you can do. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 6/4/2016 from

Moursund, D. (5/12/2016. Building a personal library for children. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/4/2016 from

Moursund, D. (3/10/2016). Skill knows no gender. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/4/2016 from

Moursund, D. (9/13/2015). Technology and problem solving: PreK-12 education for adult life, careers, and further education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Microsoft Word: PDF: Web:

Moursund, D. (2/15/2016). Progress in science leads to still more questions. IAE Blog. Retrieved 6/4/2016 from

Mueller, J. (n.d.). Authentic assessment toolbox. Retrieved 6/4/2016 from

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