Texas Tech University

Virtual Reality, Actual Learning: Professor Probes Emergent Technology Use in K-12 Science Classrooms

Heidi Toth

February 1, 2017


Education professor Rebecca Hite explores the affordances of 3-D, haptic, virtual reality for greater understanding of STEM concepts, particularly among underrepresented groups.

Rebecca Hite
Rebecca Hite

Rebecca Hite wonders if a child with autism interacting with a virtual world will help that child overcome his anxieties in real life.

She's curious to know why virtual reality (VR) allows girls, who tend to be risk-averse, to take more risks when exploring science and how VR allows them to feel more comfortable than when engaging in real-world risks.

She suspects virtual reality may be the great equalizer in STEM education – the X-factor that allows students from any educational or socioeconomic background to unlock the mysteries that even the best efforts from textbooks, lectures and worksheets haven't.

Hite, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education at Texas Tech University, spent years teaching science and geography to high school students, all the while wondering what was missing. She had the students who “got” science, who wanted to be doctors, engineers and biologists when they grew up. Yet they were students whose parents were educated, they had science books and tools at home and they were acquainted with doctors, engineers and biologists.

In the same classroom, she had students who never grasped the scientific concepts she taught. They couldn't see how science applied to them or their worldview. These students, almost exclusively, came from low-income households where either their parents had little education, didn't read science books at home or do science experiments during summer vacation. They didn't think about becoming doctors, engineers or scientists; they didn't know anybody who had.

Wanting to offer those students something more, Hite searched for options. After more than a decade teaching she found herself a student again, this time studying the use of virtual reality in education. She'd found the something that was missing.

“Even if you know or your family doesn't know much about science, if you have no scientific equipment at home or you don't participate in out-of-school science experiences, you can still access and develop a love for science,” Hite said. “We just need to provide ways to give you those opportunities to get to where the STEM careers are, to where your passions lie.”

From theory to practice

Before she was immersed in testing how virtual reality fits into STEM education, Hite was on the front lines of the actual reality of STEM education, teaching science to high school students in the public schools of North Carolina.

What she learned with her students influenced her research in graduate school; namely, that STEM futures were out of reach to many rural, low-income or minority students. These reasons varied widely, from students whose parents didn't have a background of education or they were in alternative education because they had intersected with the criminal justice system. They didn't see themselves reflected as STEM professionals on television, in textbooks or in their communities, so they never saw themselves in those careers. Too often, traditional education reinforced that belief.

When Hite started her doctoral research, she focused on how the use of emergency forms of instructional technology could produce better outcomes in science education. She found significant gaps in the research literature with K-12 technology implementation and instruction. For example, she found studies in which educators used technology like iPads without a real understanding of how to use them effectively.

“It's critically important that what we put in front of kids is pedagogically appropriate to their level, their circumstance and their context,” she said. “What's ultimately important is that we're really moving the needle for education, especially for groups that haven't traditionally had access to robust and unique science experiences.”

In beginning her doctoral studies at North Carolina State University, she studied under Gail Jones, a science education scholar who is internationally known for her work in haptic research, in particular using haptics to educate students who were visually impaired. Jones' research used the Novint Falcon Haptic System, which taught students about gas laws through touch, allowing students with visual impairments to make observations, a task they'd never been able to do before.

A year into her program, Hite was attending the National Science Teachers Association convention when Jones came running up, grabbed her by the arm and said, “You have to come see this.”

“This” was the zSpace®, a virtual reality platform that used haptics (touch and force feedback for interacting with virtual objects), 3-D technology and virtual reality. It allowed users to “take” the virtual object they were looking at out of the device, turn it around 360 degrees and dissect it. In this virtual environment, butterflies flew. The human heart had a beat.

They asked the zSpace representatives about the research into the machine; their answer was an invitation to conduct 3-D, haptic, VR research using the instructional tool. So Hite and her adviser brainstormed what to study, they contacted zSpace and soon found themselves with a loaner machine and a classroom of middle school students. The self-described “grizzled old teacher” suddenly found herself in a new world of STEM education possibilities. The platform allowed students to interact with complex, abstract science content they often couldn't even conceptualize.

Photo Gallery

Hite, R. (2016, April). Perceptions of Virtual Presence in 3-D, Haptic-Enabled, Virtual Reality Science Instruction (Doctoral dissertation)

Leveling the playing field

Hite once asked the middle school student participants in her study class to draw a heart.

Some of the students drew the basic components of the human heart, complete with compartments and tubes. Other students drew this:Heart-SG2001-transparent[1]

The difference, Hite said, was about access. Students with some basic understanding of the heart said their parents or friends' parents were doctors or they learned this from science books or shows or science toys at home. The students who drew the graphic depiction of a heart reported little access to extracurricular science. They'd never seen a depiction of the organ keeping them alive except for the Valentine's Day version.

By and large, the students who had a poorer conception of the heart mirrored the groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields: students with disabilities, minority students, low-income students and girls. 

These sixth-graders were still young; in theory they had plenty of time in middle and high school to gain a love and understanding for science. But research shows that isn't happening. Children know by middle school where they excel and where they struggle, and they know whether they fit into a group. And if they're struggling with a subject, like science, they won't embrace or identify with it.

“If you look at our literature, where does STEM matter most? Really, it's in that middle school age,” she said. “That's where they decide: I'm a math person, I'm a science person.”

The long-term societal effects of this is many students will choose not to engage in STEM fields. Literature shows having a science identity at this age is important and can be more difficult to cultivate when students are from groups already underrepresented in STEM fields.

Hite's doctoral research suggests virtual reality's strengths lie in the equal opportunity it provides to the learner. Students with no understanding of the cardiovascular system can go into zSpace and explore the heart – the four chambers, the aorta, the movement of de-oxygenated blood into the heart and oxygenated blood out of the heart and into the body at their own pace, examining and learning the features as if they were holding the real thing in their hands.

Whether it was a human heart, a cell, a butterfly, a frog or a circuit board, students could observe the object closely, turn it around, pick it apart and put it back together. The result was not just that they knew more, Hite said. They understood it. They knew the parts of the human heart and how each part worked in concert with others to make the heart beat. The science, both fact and application, made sense to them.

“Some people can't see the form and function of the human heart in their heads,” Hite said. “zSpace lets you see it. It provides a unique view of the unseen world and how it functions with your interaction in real time.”

That, in turn, opened the students' eyes to dozens of opportunities they'd never considered. Topics like biology, anatomy and geology suddenly fit into their worldview. Hite remembered one student, a young African-American girl, discussing her experience after examining the heart in zSpace.

“She said, ‘Wow, maybe I can be a doctor,'” Hite remembered. “Looking at the heart, she thought she was going to be scared of it, she thought it was going to be complicated, and then she was like, ‘I could be a doctor. I could get this if I had more time with it. I wish I had more time' – which to me means opportunity – ‘I wish I had more time to learn with this.'”

Using theory to advance understanding in the field

Academics disagree why some people succeed in science and some don't. They know many factors are in play, but these questions are answered differently by different people.

Hite listed a number of theories that tried to explain this phenomenon, dismissing many of them as she went. The behaviorist line of thinking basically attributed success to innate intelligence – you're smart or you're not. The educational field has moved away from these ways of thinking, she said.

The second, constructivism, puts more of one's learning on a person's peers and social surroundings. Those who know the right people have the best learning opportunities.

Hite adheres to the situative perspective of learning, which suggests one's learning process is linked to his or her situation in context, where expertise can be reached if one has sufficient opportunities to learn. Some people may become experts faster because they have more opportunities earlier in life, but their success is not dependent on innate intelligence or luck.

“It's not what you know, it's not who you know, it's just how many opportunities you have to learn,” Hite said.

She foresees a particular use of emergent technologies for underrepresented groups in STEM. Girls, for example, reported feeling safer taking risks in virtual reality.

“If you make a mistake, it doesn't matter. That's what the kids said all the time in zSpace,” she said. “They weren't afraid of making mistakes. They would engage in risk in zSpace because they knew if they messed up they could just start over. You can't do that in real life. You can't do that in a real lab.”

She recalled in another study that middle school girls were afraid to build circuits because once, years before, a circuit the science class was doing started a fire. On zSpace, however, after initial apprehension the fear was largely gone; they created extensive, almost artistic circuits beyond the scope of any real-life project.

Next steps

Hite has ordered a number of zSpace units as well as psychological sensors and some augmented reality machines. She's using her time until those arrive meeting with community and education leaders, teachers and parents to determine what questions the stakeholders want answered. She wants teachers to be excited and parents to be well-informed.

She sees opportunity outside of middle school STEM education, though. zSpace's primary work up to now has been with medical students, allowing them to explore the human body without an actual human body. Universities throughout the country are employing virtual reality to teach teachers – both how to teach using virtual reality and to help pre-service teachers who are struggling with their areas of specialty.

Mostly she's just excited to see where 3-D, haptic, virtual reality can take students who previously thought they were going nowhere.

Find Texas Tech news, experts and story ideas at Texas Tech Today Media Resources or follow us on Twitter.