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Published in Print: August 7, 1996, as Brave New Worlds

Brave New Worlds

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Imagine you are a student in an advanced high school physics class. The subject of today's lesson is electrostatic forces and fields. You've learned some of the concepts already from classroom lectures and textbooks. You know the definitions, for example, for electric potentials and field lines.

Today, however, your learning is about to enter a new dimension. Literally. In class, your teacher helps you strap on a heavy piece of headgear with glasses that completely block out your view of the classroom around you. In your right hand, the teacher places what feels like a billiard ball. This is a three-dimensional computer mouse. Another computer-control device goes in your left hand.

First, you see only darkness. Then, as the controls are adjusted and you slowly become oriented to your strange, new surroundings, you find yourself inside a black, three-dimensional box. If you raise your left hand in front of your face, a computer menu appears before you in the box. The ball in your other hand controls a computer-generated "hand" that you can navigate around the box. If you use your computer hand to point to a spot on the menu, the world of electrical forces and fields begins to unfold for you.

You find that you can, for example, use your electronic fingertip to plunk test charges of varying magnitudes anywhere in the box. Thus suspended in the box, the charges look like tiny, colorful spheres. You can watch--and even hear and feel--how they interact with other charges in the box. You can see the magnitude of the charges and the direction of the forces they create. Click to another spot on the menu, and you can use your finger to trace the vividly colored electrical field lines that leap out from each charge. Point to a charge, and your finger can be a meter to help you explore the distribution of electric potential in the black space before you.

The world you have entered is known as MaxwellWorld. It is one of three virtual-reality worlds created by researchers at George Mason University, the University of Houston, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center to enhance the teaching of science concepts.

"A bunch of different groups--the military, medicine, and industry--have used virtual reality for training purposes," says Christopher J. Dede, the lead researcher in the project, which is known as ScienceSpace. "What we were interested in exploring was whether we could use virtual reality for broader things like education and whether it could be used with much younger ages."

Their results so far, the researchers say, suggest that the answer to both questions might be yes.

Virtual-reality technology relies on supercomputers to produce three-dimensional worlds in which viewers become actors, rather than mere observers. NASA, for example, has used the technology to train technicians on the ground in how to repair the orbiting Hubble space telescope. And the U.S. Army uses it to simulate unfamiliar terrains, such as the deserts surrounding the Persian Gulf, for foot soldiers in training. The soldiers wear the virtual-reality headgear as they walk on treadmills--an exercise that makes it seem to them as if they are actually walking along in the desert.

"NASA had a lot of money--but not anymore--and virtual-reality environments look to be cheaper," says R. Bowen Loftin, who heads up the space agency's part of the ScienceSpace project. "There's a growing body of literature on virtual reality, and all the papers but one support the effectiveness of the approach."

But, as cheap and effective as the technology has proved to be for the military and the national space agency, its cost proved a little more daunting for similar kinds of experiments in education. The graphic supercomputers used to power the technology can cost $250,000 or more. And studies on the broader educational uses of virtual technology are virtually nonexistent.

But Dede, who has built a career out of exploring the educational uses of cutting-edge technological developments, predicts that the cost of the technology will rapidly fall as video-game manufacturers, attracted by virtual reality's commercial appeal, undertake their own research-and-development efforts. Many of those companies are already hard at work in their laboratories.

"This will be under-the-Christmas-tree technology in a decade," predicts Dede, a professor of education and technology at George Mason University here.

To Dede and his research partners, science education is particularly well-suited to the new technology for a number of reasons.

"We know there are some things that are very difficult to teach that instructors complain about in the science curriculum--either because the real world behaves so differently or because it's so contradictory to students' experience that they don't believe it," he says.

One example: Newton's laws of motion. One of those laws holds that an object remains at rest or in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. But anyone who has rolled a ball on a flat surface knows that it doesn't take long for the ball to come to a stop as the unseen forces of friction and gravity slow it down.

"In a lot of physics, you depend fairly heavily on visualization," adds Edward Redish, a University of Maryland physics professor who worked on MaxwellWorld. "Many of my students have trouble understanding what they're seeing when they look at a picture in a book, which is supposed to be two-dimensional. And pictures that are supposed to be slices of a three-dimensional view are often misinterpreted by students."

What virtual reality can do--and, indeed, the ScienceSpace project has done--is create three-dimensional, multisensory worlds that are true to the laws of science. Students using MaxwellWorld, for example, can see that electrical field lines run in every direction. Giving students seemingly real experiences in those worlds could prevent or dispel misconceptions, the ScienceSpace researchers say.

Work on the ScienceSpace project began in 1994 with an initial $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The effort is scheduled to run two more years. Besides MaxwellWorld, the researchers have created NewtonWorld, which helps students at the upper-elementary level and beyond explore Newton's laws of motion free of the confounding effects of gravity and friction, and PaulingWorld, which simulates molecular structure and chemical bonding. In each of the three worlds, students see and feel as well as hear the phenomena they are exploring. In MaxwellWorld, for example, a tone increases in volume in direct proportion to the strength of the electric charges. And a cushion placed on the viewer's back vibrates in a similar manner.

The George Mason research team, working with physicists, chemists, and psychologists, designed the worlds, and NASA researchers developed the software. Once each world was completed, the researchers began testing it, trying it out on approximately 150 teachers and students over the course of five experiments.

"We're not true believers in virtual reality. We are agnostics," Dede says . "We're listening closely to teachers and students. But what we can say is our data are suggestive that there's power here, and that this is going to take some time to understand."

In one experiment, the researchers compared MaxwellWorld's learning effects with those of a two-dimensional computer program, known as EM FieldÐ, that teaches many of the same concepts.

They chose 14 students who had taken similar one-year courses in physics and gave them preliminary tests on the concepts addressed in both computer programs. Half the group was then exposed to MaxwellWorld, and the other half tried out EM Field.

The researchers found that students in both groups deepened their understanding of electrostatic forces. But the students who used MaxwellWorld did a slightly better job than the other group of defining and sketching the phenomena and of describing the three-dimensional nature of electric fields and potential.

Moreover, the MaxwellWorld students were more excited by the technology--an effect that has been echoed in their other ScienceSpace studies.

"Immersion in a virtual-reality environment does seem to be stimulating and intriguing for students even after the novelty effects wear off," Dede says.

"My students would kill to be a part of it," says Paul Oliver, a 5th-grade teacher from Centreville, Va., who tried out some of the ScienceSpace worlds. "I talk to them about it all the time, and their eyes are as big as golf balls."

What's more, he says, viewing MaxwellWorld amplified his own understanding of the concepts taught, even though, as the son of a nuclear physicist, he already had an extensive background in the subject.

Some of the researchers' other studies also suggest that as students spend more time immersed in these virtual worlds, some of their misconceptions about scientific phenomena fade.

But the research has turned up some drawbacks as well. For one, some students--particularly those who are younger and more familiar with video games--are far better at navigating virtual worlds than others.

Also, after half an hour or more of using the equipment, eyestrain becomes a problem for some users. The head gear weighs about three pounds and can cause sore necks, although Dede says future versions will be no heavier than a baseball cap with attached visors or glasses.

And a small percentage of the experimental subjects--Dede figures about 3 percent to 7 percent--experience moderate motion sickness in their disorienting new virtual words. Stronger bouts of motion sickness prevent another 1 percent of users from tolerating a virtual environment altogether.

"If someone is actually susceptible to motion sickness, it doesn't go away in these environments," says Marilyn Salzman, a doctoral student in psychology who is working with Dede. But the researchers are finding that they can lessen the effects of motion sickness somewhat by redesigning their programs.

Redish of the University of Maryland also warns that MaxwellWorld--or any other computer program--cannot replace good teaching.

"You have to understand what students' difficulties are in order to use MaxwellWorld," he says. "If students go in with misconceptions, MaxwellWorld may only confirm them."

And teachers such as Oliver worry that schools will never be able to afford to provide entire classrooms of students with the needed equipment.

In the meantime, Redish is planning to try projecting MaxwellWorld images onto a wide screen. He will give his college students 3-D glasses to view the scenes and then explain the phenomena they are seeing as he goes along. Students will not be able to manipulate the images themselves as they could in a true virtual-reality environment, but at least all the students will essentially be on the same instructional page.

And Dede hopes to find ways to open up and humanize his virtual worlds so students can interact with one another, perhaps by playing a game. In its experiments with virtual technology, NASA has already linked astronauts in Germany and in the United States for simultaneous training exercises.

What the researchers hope to have at the end of their five-year project is at least a set of principles to guide the effective design of virtual-reality environments for educational purposes. The rest may be up to the video-game manufacturers.

"My question is: Can we find something better than Super Mario III to put in those cartridges?" Dede asks.

The ScienceSpace project maintains a home page on the Internet's World Wide Web at

Vol. 15, Issue 41, Pages 50-53

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