September 2010

Virtual Reality in Science Education


Technology is becoming more widespread in education, from virtual lecture halls and laboratories to islands in online worlds. Here, Nick Zagorski explores three examples of some innovative approaches to integrate technology into science teaching. (Titled "In Science Education, the Reality Is Virtual" in print version.)


There was a time, not too long ago, when all you needed to teach a science course was a piece of chalk. However, even the staid lecture halls of universities aren’t immune to technology’s relentless advance, particularly in computing and online applications, and the past several years have seen many institutions incorporate modern technologies into the teaching environment. Below are just three examples of some innovative approaches to integrate technology into science teaching, highlighting the fact that, with today’s tools, virtually anything is possible.

Two Houses, One Home

Scripps professor Michael Kalichman lectures to his class in California, as well as students at the Florida campus seen on the board on the left, using an interactive whiteboard (smartboard) which can also be configured to display video content when necessary. 

When San Diego’s Scripps Research Institute was setting up its campus in Jupiter, Fla., a few years back, its founders wanted to make sure their new endeavor would not be perceived as a second-class satellite center; Scripps Florida was an expansion of this renowned institution, just one that was situated across the country, as opposed to across the street.

Of particular importance was trying to make the Florida students feel a bicoastal connection, so, Scripps set out to provide them access to the courses available in California.

The institute fitted the principal lecture halls on each campus with multiple digital cameras and projectors to allow students in one room to watch the proceedings in the other room in real time.

Curt Wittenberg, who oversees Scripps’ first-year molecular biology course, which has been at the forefront of using the new technology, notes it has been an interesting adaptation process.

“Right around the time we began implementing the technology, we also were switching the class from a lecture to discussion-type format,” he says. “Combine that with the fact that this course is team-taught, and each member has his or her own degree of affinity for the technology, it made for an interesting transition.”

The early years were more adventurous, as the hookup initially only allowed passive viewing; thus, if a student in Florida had a question, they had to type it via instant messenger to a teaching assistant in California who would then relay it to the professor.

Today, the virtual lecture halls are a technophile’s dream. A professor can see and hear both sets of students (he or she controls the camera remotely at the podium), and Scripps even has added SMART boards (digital whiteboards), which allow teachers to include interactive visual aids.

Recently, Scripps also has adapted the systems to behave as a virtual conference room for use in seminar courses and journal clubs. Projecting the classroom on the opposite coast on the screen in the front of the room creates the illusion that the room extends twice as far; and, with picture-in-picture technology, the students can display graphs or figures as they discuss their journal papers.

“It’s certainly different from when we faculty were students,” Wittenberg says, “But, we’ve managed to adapt pretty quickly, and it’s a fun and innovative way to make our two campuses feel like one.”

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A fascinating glimpse into what is available now and what is coming in short order - well done. Some notion of the start-up costs and how they could be phased in would also be helpful. Please do continue this as a series. Stan Scordilis - Smith College



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