A virtual environment teaches real science
December 2, 2009 |  by Michael Anft

Just last year, Room 10 at Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County could have served as the model for the uninspiring classroom. Two-chambered, built with blocks painted off-white, and without windows, it was a place where students sat quietly at desks copying instructions from a chalkboard. Students returning for this school year could be forgiven for not recognizing the place. Now, the walls glimmer with colors in motion—the glow of state-of-the-art computers that surround students with visual graphics and dynamic gaming technology. The rear chamber has been outfitted with a series of wide screens and work stations that mirror the effect of sitting in a cockpit. There, groups of students in math and science attempt to unlock the secrets of the geography surrounding Mount St. Helens, the volcano that erupted in 1980, wiping out hundreds of square miles of plants and thousands of animals, and killing 57 people. Once a by-the-books business classroom, Room 10 is now abuzz with action more akin to video games than lectures.

With software created by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and educational programs developed with the help of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Technology in Education (CTE), the project—named Seahawk—gives kids the chance to fly virtual planes over the rubble of the former peak, pilot boats in nearby mountain lakes, or get behind the wheel of a four-wheel-drive vehicle. But instead of killing people, as in Grand Theft Auto, or overcoming obstacles to amass hoards of gold, as players of World of Warcraft do, students at this public high school in an aging, working-class suburb of Baltimore virtually test air and water quality, investigate what types of plants and animals have returned to the region, and calculate the effects humans have had on the land surrounding the volcano.

The virtual learning environment (or VLE) may be the first of its kind, says Dave Peloff, program director for emerging technologies at CTE. It features high-powered computers that keep learning simulations moving almost in real time on video monitors that surround the students who work—or “play”—on them. What’s more, the VLE more closely resembles the actual terrain of Mount St. Helens by incorporating real geographical data into the program. “We’ll see more and more of these [VLEs] in the coming years,” says Peloff, whose office wall is adorned with a 1950s-style poster that, tongue in cheek, reads: VIDEO GAMES: WHY WASTE GOOD TECHNOLOGY ON SCIENCE AND MEDICINE? “We wanted to get out in front on this kind of idea, so we hooked up with APL to see if anything they were doing with defense technology could work in education.”

Urged on by Joe Hairston, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, and armed with $1.5 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Education, Peloff and staff drafted APL’s help four years ago. The lab had previously developed three-dimensional visualization software to acquaint soldiers headed for duty in Iraq with the terrain and movements of people in and around Baghdad, as well as train prospective astronauts for NASA. A crew of 10 working part time translated that software into something useful in the classroom.

Swapping one context for another wasn’t as easy as it might sound. “We’re not game developers—we don’t have the budget that the Xbox people [at Microsoft] have to figure all this out and plug in all the bells and whistles you find in games,” says Timothy Frey, assistant group supervisor at APL. “Kids will likely try to compare this to those games. But we thought what was most important was to get them into it within the first half hour, or we’d lose them. Game designers call that ‘stickiness.’ That was probably the most difficult aspect for us to deal with.”

Teachers and ad­-ministrators at Chesapeake High School say that, so far, the Seahawk VLE is plenty sticky. Students in environmental science and geometry classes took to the program immediately. “We saw as we trained some students on this during the summer that not only did they like it, but that they could learn differently from it,” says Maria Lowry, principal at the school. “Some kids who were worried about taking an environmental science class really like it now.” Besides keeping students interested, the VLE allows them to work in squads where they try to figure out plans of action, solve problems, and come to conclusions together. The program will be expanded to include English and social studies classes by the end of the school year.

In October, science students took part in a five-day “challenge”—the first of many—to find out what caused a fish kill on a lake near Mount St. Helens. Manipulating two devices similar to ones airlines use to train pilots, they swooped into view the simulated dead fish floating on top of the lake, then led a boat into various parts of it to take water samples. They delved into the land-use history of the region for clues.

Divided into “red” and “black” teams, students navigated their vehicles over or across a 15-by-22-mile swath of terrain on 10 70-inch LCD monitors (five per team) situated in a circle on the walls around them, and then responded to commands from a fictional headquarters. A “virtual fuel tank” was used as a time limiter to keep students on task. Each team scored points for unearthing correct answers.

Despite requiring students to get through tasks completely—and ultimately for grades—the key is to make the learning fun. Pop music is pumped in to accompany the simulations.

“You don’t want to suck the fun out of the game. One worry we have is that teachers would go too far too fast on the educational content,” says Peloff, who adds that teachers can customize the software to match their curriculum. Future VLEs on the South Pole and other areas might be forthcoming. “The Chesapeake Bay would be another logical environment to create,” he says.

While the program runs at Chesapeake High, Peloff says CTE and Baltimore County Schools will measure how well kids are motivated to use the environment, how many of them may be swayed toward a math and science career, and whether their attention and school attendance are affected by using it.

Peloff says there is interest from other school systems nearby, and from afar: An education minister from Chile has inquired about the program. But Peloff’s most impressed with the reactions of local kids he called in to CTE to test Seahawk when it was still in its early phases of development. Some of them rarely attended school. “One kid from Baltimore City told us that if we had a VLE at his school, he’d come every day,” Peloff says. “There’s no question kids like that can pick up this technology fast.”

Students might eventually have even more say in how the technology develops. “One of the goals we have is to get the kids involved in customizing these environments, so they more readily buy into it. We’d like them to be able to pick certain characteristics or scenarios,” he says, “just like they can in a video game.”