Students use virtual reality to connect with algebra

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

As part of a new beta test with the virtual reality company Prisms, students can do this and much more without ever leaving the classroom. 

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

The moment students put on their headsets, they are immersed in a cool, tranquil world in which they become the advising experts and decision-makers. Teachers can monitor the students from a computer and help them through problems as necessary. 

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

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

“There’s been a lot of research in the area of virtual reality,” Burrows said. “It’s often used to increase intrinsic motivation in students. A lot of times that intrinsic motivation is connected to collaborative spaces.” 

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

In the landfill module, students learn the impact that waste management has on natural spaces as they watch piles of trash build up around them. 

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

To predict how population increases will impact waste production at a park, students plot points and draw a line of best fit on a graph. In the three-dimensional virtual space the students are not looking at a graph in front of them, but standing in the middle of it.

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

For Taufa, the program fills a gap in real life applications to math that she didn’t have the time to plan before. 

“Virtual reality is going to be a part of our lives more and more. To be exposed to that is important,” Taufa said. “I also think it’s important that students see math in many different ways.”

Burrows explained that because each student learns differently, virtual reality can be a better option for some who may be more visual or hands-on thinkers, while other students may not be as receptive to the approach. The application also depends on the subject area and how well it lends itself to this type of hands-on learning. 

“There is no 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 percent of the virtual reality technology in education is used in secondary schools, and research surrounding its use in mathematics is even less, Burrows said. 

There are some universal drawbacks to the use of virtual reality in classrooms, such as barriers to accessibility because of cost and teacher time needed to learn to operate the technology. 

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

Some of the students expressed frustration with unclear directions and lack of user friendliness in the technology, as well as some disinterest in the concept — no matter how flashy the technology, it’s still math class. 

To Taufa, these challenges also can provide unexpected benefits.

“In life it’s not always going to be spelled out. You’re in this world where it’s OK if you push 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 in to the program, students have opportunities to problem solve and help one another. Taufa’s class is the only one at LHS using the headsets, meaning that one day these students could be responsible for helping their peers learn how to use the technology, building leadership skills and confidence along the way. 

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

The university has been working for a few years on recruiting schools and educators to conduct tests and research on the topic.

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

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