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Teaching science with augmented reality

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Using virtual reality in the classroom

We learn through lectures and reading. We especially learn through illustrations, photographs, diagrams, and animations. But a limitation is that so many of these images are flat, two-dimensional.  Not surprisingly, many folks have trouble visualizing what a system is really like, if they only have two dimensional pictures.

An obvious practical solution is to make a lesson hands-on: Students can take a field trip to see gears and machines in a power plant; see ancient ruins on site; travel to a valley and fly over a vast ecosystem to see different parts of the environment.  But there’s only so much that a school can do in practice: we can’t purchase every manipulative and lab, or travel to see every place that we talk about.

Yet with today’s technology we can actually model machines, cells, valleys and volcanoes, ecosystems, distance cities, and archaeological sites, in three dimensions – and then bring all of this into the classroom. We bring these models in to a virtual space that students can explore.

And that’s what we are already doing in our classrooms! First, let’s learn a few terms: XR, AR, and VR.

XR- Extended Reality

the emerging umbrella term for all immersive computer virtual experience technologies. These technologies AR, VR, and MR.

Augmented Reality (AR)

When virtual information and objects are overlaid on the real world. This experience enhances the real world with digital details such as images, text, and animation. This means users are not isolated from the real world and can still interact and see what’s going on in front of them.

CRISPR enzyme floating in three dimensions.

Crispr AR Augmented Reality enzyme protein

Photo by RK (c) 2019

Virtual Reality (VR)

Users are fully immersed in a simulated digital environment. Individuals must put on a VR headset or head-mounted display to get a 360 -degree view of an artificial world. This fools their brain into believing they are walking on the moon, swimming under the ocean or stepped into whatever new world the VR developers created.

Virtual Reality

A team of researchers at ESA’s mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, are investigating new concepts for controlling rovers on a planet and satellites in orbit. Image from the ESA, esa.int/ESA_Multimedia/Images/2017/07/Reality_check

Mixed reality (MR), aka Hybrid Reality

Digital and real-world objects co-exist and can interact with one another in real-time. This experience requires an MR headset… Microsoft’s HoloLens is a great example that, e.g., allows you to place digital objects into the room you are standing in and give you the ability to spin it around or interact with the digital object in any way possible.

Microsoft Hololens XR MR AR

Image from Microsoft

Excerpts of these definitions from Bernard Marr, What Is Extended Reality Technology? A Simple Explanation For Anyone, Forbes, 8/12/2019

Augmented reality in Ecology & Environmental Science

When students actively participate in augmented reality learning, the class is effectively a lab, as opposed to being a lecture.  Here we are studying ecosystems with an app from the World Wildlife Foundation, WWF Rivers.

WWF Rivers AR Augmented Reality app Kaiser Ecology

Photo by RK (c) 2019

This student has their head in the clouds 😉

Kaiser AR Augmented Realitt Ecology WWF Rivers

Photo by RK (c) 2019

Here we are using the Google Expeditions app, on a Pixel 3A smartphone. The plug-in is “Earth Geology” by Vida systems. For more details see Google Expeditions – Education in VR.

AR in Earth Science

As we walk around the room, we see the Earth and all of it’s layers in a realistic 3D view. Here we stood above the arctic circle, and took screenshots as we moved down latitude, until we were above the antarctic.

Augmented Reality AR Earth Science Inner Core Mantle

Photo by RK (c) 2019

Augmented Reality AR Earth Science Inner Core Mantle 2

Photo by RK (c) 2019


AR in Physics & Engineering

A simple machine is a mechanical device that changes the direction or magnitude of a force. They are the simplest mechanisms that use mechanical advantage to multiply force.

Here we are examining gears, including bicycle gears.

Bicycle Gears AR Augmented Reality

Photo by RDK (c) 2019

Related Special Education topics

If you can’t visually imagine things, how can you learn?

If someone can’t visually imagine things, how can you learn? We know some people can’t conjure up mental images. But we’re only beginning to understand the impact this “aphantasia” might have on their education.

A discussion of an inability to form mental images , congenital aphantasia. This is believed to affect 2% of the population.

by Mo Costandi,  Jun 2016, The Guardian, UK

Learning Standards

What kind of learning standards will students address when using augmented reality science lessons?

NGSS Cross-Cutting Concepts

6. Structure and Function – The way an object is shaped or structured determines many of its properties and functions: Complex and microscopic structures and systems can be visualized, modeled, and used to describe how their function depends on the shapes, composition, and relationships among its parts; therefore, complex natural and designed structures/systems can be analyzed to determine how they function

Massachusetts Digital Literacy and Computer Science (DLCS) Curriculum Framework

Modeling and Simulation [6-8.CT.e] – 3. Select and use computer simulations, individually and collaboratively, to gather, view, analyze, and report results for content-related problems (e.g., migration, trade, cellular function).

Digital Tools [9-12.DTC.a] – 2. Select digital tools or resources based on their efficiency and effectiveness to use for a project or assignment and justify the selection.

American Association of School Librarians: Standards Framework for Learners

1. Inquire: Build new knowledge by inquiring, thinking critically, identifying problems, and developing strategies for solving problems

Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles

AP-CSP Curriculum Guides
LO 3.1.3 Explain the insight and knowledge gained from digitally processed data by using appropriate visualizations, notations, and precise language.
EK 3.1.3A Visualization tools and software can communicate information about data.
EK 3.1.3E Interactivity with data is an aspect of communicating.

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