Pinedale Rally | Students use virtual reality to connect with algebra

LARAMIE – For a group of students at Laramie High School, a trip to the dump could be the key to passing Algebra 1.

In a new beta test with virtual reality company Prisms, students can do that and more without ever leaving the classroom.

The class, led by educators Jenny Taufa and Kerry O’Dea, has completed three of the five modules included in the beta test, which involves the use of a virtual reality headset and hand controls to teach students some aspects of mathematics. The modules address situations where mathematics can be used to solve problems and improve the world.

As soon as the students put on their headphones, they are immersed in a cool and quiet world in which they become the expert advisers and the decision makers. Teachers can monitor students from a computer and help them solve problems if necessary.

In one module, students are air traffic controllers and must write equations to prevent planes from crashing. In another, they are confronted with the melting of a glacier and must calculate how long it will take for the city of Miami to be submerged in the ocean.

Using technology like virtual reality has potential as an educational tool that goes beyond teaching algebra, said Andrea Burrows, associate dean of the University of Wyoming College of Education. .

“There has been a lot of research in the area of ​​virtual reality,” Burrows said. “It is often used to increase students’ intrinsic motivation. Often, this intrinsic motivation is linked to collaborative spaces.

Virtual reality can mimic hands-on real-world experiences for students, which can increase their understanding of the subject.

In the landfill module, students learn about the impact of waste management on natural spaces by watching piles of waste build up around them.

“It was sad. I had to throw the fries away,” LHS student Jarod Whisler said of an exercise that involved sorting trash into appropriate containers.

To predict the impact of population growth on waste generation in a park, students plot points and draw a line of best fit on a graph. In the three-dimensional virtual space, students do not look at a graph in front of them, but stand in the middle of it.

“With VR, you’re going to have a lot of engagement because it’s new and innovative,” Burrows said. “It’s usually something we haven’t seen or thought about in some way that excites us.”

For Taufa, the program fills a gap in the real-world applications of math that she hadn’t had time to plan for before.

“Virtual reality will increasingly be part of our lives. Being exposed to that is important,” Taufa said. “I also think it’s important for students to see math in different ways.”

Burrows explained that because every student learns differently, virtual reality may be a better option for some who may be more visual or practical thinkers, while other students may not be as receptive to the approach. Application also depends on the field and its ability to lend itself to this type of hands-on learning.

“There’s not one thing that’s going to save us, because not every person in your class is the same,” Burrows said. “That’s the beauty of teaching, that everyone is different.”

Only about 10% of virtual reality technology in education is used in secondary schools, and research around its use in math is even less, Burrows said.

There are some universal drawbacks to using VR in classrooms, such as accessibility barriers due to cost and the time it takes for teachers to learn how to use the technology.

“On day one, only about five minutes were actually spent in VR,” Taufa said of the beta testing experience. “The rest of the time I was trying to figure out how to do it.”

Some students have expressed frustration with the unclear instructions and lack of user-friendliness of the technology, as well as some disinterest in the concept – no matter how flashy the technology is, it’s still a math lesson.

For Taufa, these challenges can also offer unexpected benefits.

“In life, it’s not always clear. You’re in this world where it’s okay if you press the wrong button and you have to start over,” Taufa said. “It’s a very safe world to maybe try those things that make us uncomfortable.”

Whether it’s crashing planes or simply logging into the program, students have the opportunity to problem solve and help each other. Taufa’s class is the only one at LHS to use the headsets, which means one day these students could be tasked with helping their peers learn to use technology, build leadership skills and confidence on the job. road.

Just down the street, the UW College of Education and the College of Engineering and Applied Science are working to expand access to virtual reality in schools.

The university has been working for some years on recruiting schools and educators to conduct testing and research on the subject.

The university offers grants and professional development opportunities for schools to implement virtual reality. It also offers a program where teachers can be paid to work in a virtual reality research lab for six weeks over the summer.

“The College of Education is ready to work with districts to implement some of these things,” Burrows said. “All we do is serve the State of Wyoming.”

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