Virtual reality: A new frontier in climate change learning

In the span of about 30 minutes, courtesy of Dreamscape Learn, attendees at the ‘Understanding Climate Experientially’ session at the Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley Summit in San Diego, California, were treated to glimpses of at least seven different learning environments, from the age of the dinosaurs through to King Tut’s tomb and the extracellular matrix of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID.

“We’ve been struggling for eons to try to figure out how to build what we called our realm four area: education through exploration,” said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (ASU), who, along with Walter Parkes, co-founder and CEO of the virtual reality production company Dreamscape Immersive (and co-producer or producer of such films as Men in Black, The Kite Runner and Amistad), oversaw the development of Dreamscape Learn.

Using (3D) virtual reality headsets, students enrolled in the Dreamscape Learn laboratories are immersed in an educational matrix that “activates technologically the learning realms of the brain that are emotionally engageable in a significant way”, Crow added.

Located in a building renovated over the past two years, the Dreamscape Learn centre welcomed 1,000 students in this, the first full semester. In place of traditional biology laboratory time, these students attend labs in the state-of-the-art virtual learning centre that cost US$20 million, paid for by Dreamscape Immersive, philanthropy and ASU.

Students begin their laboratory training by donning virtual reality goggles (VRG) – and then walk through the (virtual) alien zoo, where their avatars are physically in contact with some of the species. In subsequent lab sessions, the students take the role of scientists.

The specially designed desks they sit at are, when viewed through the VRG, inside a pod. Each student has control over his or her pod and can move around the zoo as needed. The desks allow the students to turn around, allowing them to take full advantage of the 360-degree nature of immersive virtual reality.

According to Parkes: “What we’re doing with the alien zoo is replacing conventional biology labs with these highly immersive laboratory modules in which students get to enter into a virtual world and really deal with the way real scientists collect data, look at problems, collaborate, come up with solutions, try the solutions and then come up with other hypotheses.”

While Dreamscape Learn uses the same technology video games do, Crow was careful to distinguish between the two. “Usually in a video game, you have opponents. You usually have a contest. Here, the emotional experience is, you’re in this differentiated learning environment and you’re carrying out scientific observations and scientific experiments.

“There’s no plot that’s being followed. But there’s a plot in the sense that you’re being given the nature of the animals that are there, the species that are there. You’re here to solve a problem, so there’s a plot of a problem,” he says.

Teaching global climate change

Crow, Parkes and renowned earth scientist Dr Peter Schlosser, vice-president and vice-provost of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at the ASU, emphasised how Dreamscape Learning can be used to further the United Nations sustainability goals.

According to Crow, one of the key obstacles to teaching about climate change is the feeling by most students that the mathematics and science needed to fully understand climate change are hard.

“We have to get past this notion that math and science are hard,” says Crow. “They’re not. We just don’t know how to teach it to a broad enough spectrum of people,” he said before adding: “The subject that we are leaning into now is global climate change.”

Climate change can be investigated and understood by looking backwards from the year 2100. Students or, to be more precise, their avatars, who have landed on the future Earth and, as Star Trek’s Mr Spock does with his tricorder after beaming down to a new planet, begin to investigate the planet’s less-than-propitious atmosphere.

“Let them land somewhere on the planet and feel what the temperature is like. Well, in most places, they find that it is actually too warm,” says Schlosser. Then let them measure what is in the atmosphere. They very quickly will see that there is too high a concentration of greenhouse gases. Then, they can study the nature of the molecules [such as CO2 or methane]. You can even let them go into molecules of water to see their structure.”

Making the abstract concrete

As is the case in many video games, the avatars can travel back in time, in this case to Britain at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when widespread burning of coal began increasing the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. We have an amazing tool, Schlosser told the conference, to put students next to where things happened, next to where they might look into the future. Doing this makes the abstract become concrete.

“What we’re working on is a series of lab exercises that transcend time and space … about the effects of carbon; let’s go into that atom. We talk about the depletion of the ozone layer. Well, let’s see, let’s understand it first hand,” notes Schlosser.

As the audience absorbed this new pedagogical vision, Schlosser picked up on a point Crow had made a few minutes earlier about teaching climate change. After noting that, “we don’t really know what it means” and asking the rhetorical questions, “Is the sky falling? Are we all doomed? Are we all gonna die?” Crow averred, “probably not. But we have lots of complexity [to explain] … we need to find new ways to educate around these areas of complexity and what we’ve learned from biology.”

For his part, Schlosser said: “You have to make sure that we don’t allow students to ever succumb to any kind of despair or any sense of, ‘Oh, I have no control over this’. Now you do. We can create experiences in which they go after specific problems that all add up in their complexity to understanding the larger problem. We think it’s also very empowering in terms of how they will move forward in the future.”

Dreamscape Learn uses an advanced virtual reality system, which allows for haptically (sense of touch) believable student and teacher avatars, with life-like lip synch and eye contact. It does not, however, use artificial intelligence (AI). The problems are set by the biology professors who are responsible for teaching the equations and other factual data the students’ avatars will use.

Accordingly, the system is not subject to the problems that many AI systems have when it comes to gender and-or race because of assumptions built into AI algorithms.

“We’re not using AI. Rather, what we’re using are basically the students themselves. So, what we’ve created for them is a learning environment to which they can bring their own cultural experiences. It’s highly individualised,” says Crow.

‘This is really about access’

The modules developed by Dreamscape Learn can be installed at colleges and universities and can be accessed at home by students. While the full effect of Dreamscape Learn requires 5G internet and 3D virtual reality headsets, according to Crow, the system can be adapted to 3D labs with slower internet or to 2D systems.

As the video played during the session illustrated, in addition to transporting students 30 metres below the Pacific Ocean, they can be placed on dug-out canoes on the surface to learn how Pacific voyagers could navigate without instruments.

In addition to studying Egyptology from within King Tut’s tomb, Parkes narrated, “we can look at the environment [of Mesoamerica] from the top of a pyramid in Central America. Avatars can go to Iceland and walk close to volcanoes from which smoke arises “to really understand the unique powers that are happening underneath the Geosphere”.

“This is really about access. We thought about how many kids have never been to a world-class art museum,” Parkes narrated, as the camera swept around Michelangelo’s David giving a 3D view of the world’s most famous statue, 6,230 miles from where the speakers sat in San Diego, California.