A Multi-User Virtual Environment for Learning Scientific Inquiry and 21st Century Skills
The purpose of our initial project was to build a multi-user virtual environment experiential simulator (MUVEES) in order to find an engaging way to teach science in a manner that draws on curiosity and play. The environment was enriched with digitized historical museum artifacts to enhance middle school students' motivation and learning about science.
The project's educational environments extended typical MUVE capabilities in order to study the science learning potential of immersive simulations, interactive virtual museum exhibits, and "participatory" historical situations. In particular, this project studied how the design characteristics of these learning experiences affect students' motivation and educational outcomes, as well as the extent to which digitized museums can aid pupils' performance on assessments related to national science standards. This research also examined both the process needed to successfully implement MUVEES in typical classroom settings and ways to enable strong learning outcomes across a wide range of individual student characteristics.
Our initial design started with instructional challenges identified by science teachers, who targeted experimental design as the most difficult concept for students to learn using current methods. This is a higher order skill essential in preparing pupils for their independent science fair projects. In response, we developed learning activities in the processes of scientific inquiry transitional in difficulty between classroom lab experiences and independent individual investigation of a complex real-world situation. Students learned to behave as scientists while they collaboratively identified problems through observation and inference, formed and tested hypotheses, and deduced evidence-based conclusions about underlying causes. Our prototype middle school science curriculum units also convey content knowledge based on the national science standards and aligned with the material typically covered on statewide tests.
The "River City" curriculum unit, in both English and Spanish, consised of a multi-user virtual environment with virtual contexts, computer-based agents, and digital artifacts that directly and implicitly guide learner investigations. This learning environment centered on content in biology and ecology and is designed for use in a classroom context, supplemented by conventional instructional activities such as textbooks and teacher-led discussions. The curriculum unit required ten days of class time, alternating five experiential sessions in the MUVE structured by gathering data to enter in a Lab Notebook with five interpretative whole-class discussions led by the teacher.
The River City curriculum unit is based on students collaboratively investigating a virtual "world" consisting of a city with a river running through it, different forms of terrain that influence water runoff, houses, industries, and institutions such as a hospital and a university. River City contains over fifty digital objects from the Smithsonian's collection, plus "data collection stations" that provide detailed information about water samples at various spots in the world.
River City is typical of the United States in the late nineteenth century; we use museum artifacts to illustrate building exteriors and street scenes from that period in history. Content in the right-hand interface-window shifts based on what the participant encounters or activates in the virtual environment. Dialogue is shown in a text box below these two windows; members of each team can communicate regardless of distance, but in-team dialogue is displayed only to members of that team. To aid their interactions, participants also have access to one-click interface features that enable the avatar to express (through stylized postures and gestures) emotions such as happiness, sadness, agreement, and disagreement. Multiple teams of students can access the MUVE simultaneously, each individual manipulating an avatar through their computer.
In our pilot implementations, each class was divided into teams of two to four students, which are "sent back in time" to this virtual environment. During their time in the MUVE, students answer questions in a Lab Notebook, which the teachers later use for assessment purposes. The Lab Notebook starts with questions that guide exploration of the environment and develop mastery of the interface, building towards later investigations that are content specific and require completing a data table or graph based on the water samples encountered in River City. The Lab Notebook asks the class to help the city solve its environmental and health problems, which are directly related to middle school science content. To accomplish this, the students must collaborate to share the data each team collects.
Beyond textual conversation, students can project to each other "snapshots" of their current individual point of view (when someone has discovered an item of general interest) and also can "teleport" to join anyone on their team for joint investigation. Each time a team reenters the world, several months of time have passed in River City, so learners can track the evolution of local problems.
At the end, students write to the mayor of River City describing the health and environmental problems they have encountered and suggesting ways to improve the life of the inhabitants. Learners are engaged in a "participatory historical situation" in which they can apply tools and knowledge from both the past and the present to resolve an authentic problem. In this "back to the future" situation, students' mastery of 21st century classroom content and skills empowers them in the 19th century virtual world.
Through data gathering, students observe the patterns that emerge and wrestle with questions such as "Why are many more poor people getting sick than rich people?" Multiple causal factors are involved, including polluted water runoff to low-lying areas, insect vectors in swampy areas, overcrowding, and the cost of access to medical care. Throughout the world, students encounter residents of River City and "overhear" their conversations with one another. These computer-based "agents" disclose information and indirect clues about what is going on in River City. The phrases "spoken" by these agents evolve over time.
The main goal of the MUVE is to teach students the skills necessary for scientific inquiry, particularly those important in conducting investigations for a science fair project. River City has multiple lines of potential exploration. As mentioned above, there are 3 main historically accurate strands of illness in River City (water-borne, air-borne, and insect-vectors). These three disease strands are integrated with historical, social and geographical content to allow students to experience the realities of disentangling multi-causal problems embedded within a complex environment. In schools, many students implicitly learn the unrealistic view that there is a single right answer in science, easily discernible. In exploring River City, however, students are guided in teams to develop hypotheses regarding one of many problems, based on their own interest. At the end of the project, they compare their research with other teams of students to discover the plethora of potential hypotheses and avenues of investigation available for exploration.
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