Students at Arizona State University are learning biology in a unique virtual reality experience, hurtling through space to interact with creatures in an intergalactic wildlife sanctuary the size of a small city and to solve the mystery of why the creatures are dying.

And the data are in to show that the experience is working.

ASU’s Dreamscape Learn biology course debuted in the spring 2022 semester for students who took Biology 181 (introduction to biology for biology majors) and Biology 100 (introduction to biology for non-science majors).

The experience is straight out of Hollywood, created in a collaboration with Dreamscape Immersive, a company co-founded by Walter Parkes, former head of Dreamworks Motion Pictures and the writer or producer of hit movies including “WarGames,” “Gladiator” and the “Men in Black” series.

And while its roots are in Hollywood, the technology is an innovative new way to learn, driven by storytelling and a sense of wonder.

Consider what happened in Biology 181. Initial studies show that students who participated in the Dreamscape Learn version of the course had dramatically higher lab grades and better engagement than their peers who took the conventional lab course.

“We were amazed by the results, which far exceeded our expectations and proved our initial assumptions that the interactivity and compelling storytelling of Dreamscape Learn would indeed lead to better student outcomes,” said Lisa Flesher, chief of Realm 4 Project Acceleration at ASU.

Annie Hale, executive director of the EdPlus Action Lab at ASU, a learning research lab, led a team of research scientists who studied how well the students performed.

A total of 486 students’ lab grades were measured. Half of the students were placed in the Dreamscape Learn course, which had three parts — a lecture, the virtual reality experience and a three-hour lab. The other half were placed in the conventional course, which did not include the VR experience.

Students in the Dreamscape Learn course had six VR experiences of about 10 to 15 minutes each across the semester, during which they sat at desks with a headset, hand trackers and desktop controls. They felt vibrations in their chairs as they “traveled” through the sanctuary and used the joystick to control actions such as a creature dissection.

Hale said that engagement was stronger for students who reported that they experienced the sanctuary as a place they visited and not just an image they saw.

“When students reported they felt as though they were present in the VR story, we saw a positive correlation between engagement and lab scores,” she said.

Some of the feedback from students included:

  • “I loved the aspect of the VR a lot more than I would any form of a worksheet. I feel like I understood the same amount of information without feeling like it was tedious.”
  • “It was logic and problem-solving, and I love logic and problem-solving. And then just adding the element of story in, that just makes it all the better.”
  • “I thought it was really nice when you were able to get up close to the creatures that were in the Dreamscape environment. ­­… And I thought it really made it feel as if you were someone there that was actually helping.”

Mary Ellen Lewis, a biochemistry major, said the Dreamscape Learn Biology 181 course was very personalized.

“Your name is in there, and you have a character inside the VR world, and it was certainly not like anything I had ever done before,” she said.

Lewis liked being able to “travel” inside of cells.

“When we got to cell biology, the VR program took us inside the cells so we could see that this aberrant protein was infecting the creatures and making them sick,” she said.

“It let us see the issue up front, where in a textbook, it’s very distant and you’re just reading about it.”

Since students were assigned to either the Dreamscape Learn or conventional version of the course, researchers were able to purposefully balance the composition of students within each lab on numerous factors, such as socioeconomic status (as determined by Pell Grant eligibility) and whether they were first-generation college-goers.

Hale sees promising results when it comes to traditionally underserved students.

“We need more data to have predictive power … but when you look at spring 2022 BIO 181 in context, descriptively, nearly every student demographic showed impressive learning gains,” Hale said.

Other major findings from the report included:

  • Overall, students in the Dreamscape Learn course had higher lab grades than those in the conventional course — 9% higher overall. The median lab grade for students in Dreamscape Learn was 96%, compared with 87% for the other group.
  • Students enjoyed the experience. The average rating on a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being excellent) was 4.4.
  • Engagement was higher in the Dreamscape Learn group than in the non-Dreamscape Learn group. Students in the Dreamscape Learn labs were observed chatting, working together and helping each other twice as often as those in the non-Dreamscape Learn lab. And the teaching assistants in the Dreamscape Learn lab were more likely to check in and answer questions.

The research team also surveyed 211 students in Biology 100. The Dreamscape Learn experience was offered to all Biology 100 students, and their average enjoyment rating was 4.6 out of 5. Because there was no alternative conventional lab, there was no grade comparison.

The Biology 181 Dreamscape Learn experience was deeply researched, using several different methods.

“There is no one perfect protocol to study this because fundamentally, we’re changing the way that students engage with learning,” Hale said.

“It’s not just one piece in isolation — each component of the entire experience has to be studied with each other. There’s pedagogy, there’s narrative, there’s the VR that transports students into the story, there’s cadence and structure between the lectures and VR and labs.

“And it’s all happening simultaneously.”

In addition to recording the students’ lab grades, the researchers had them complete questionnaires immediately after their virtual reality sessions. Data also was collected through hourlong qualitative interviews with 63 students, from both course types, plus 12 three-hour ethnographic lab observations and additional surveys for both Dreamscape Learn and non-Dreamscape Learn course sections.

“Of the total interviews, 39 hourlong interviews were with 15% of Dreamscape Learn students, which is a huge amount. Typically, with qualitative research, around 2% of a sample is interviewed,” Hale said.

The lab observations tracked engagement.

“For the students in the Dreamscape Learn class, because of the pedagogy and design, they had to work together in an enmeshed way,” she said.

“They were getting up out of their little groups of four to help students at other tables. That sounds silly, but in lab classes, you typically work with your peers at your table and the rest of the class is not usually involved with each other.”

What’s ahead

By spring 2023, all introductory biology courses offered through the School of Life Sciences will include Dreamscape Learn lab courses. Approximately 5,800 students are enrolled in those courses for spring.

Angilletta and VandenBrooks are continuing to create content for Biology 182, which will debut in the spring. And they’ll likely tweak Biology 181, too.

“The quality of the writing, the way we’re developing assets in VR and the storytelling have all really improved, so we plan to go back and revisit our original stories and concepts,” VandenBrooks said.

Crow said a fascinating part of the process was watching faculty navigate completely foreign teaching territories.

“They dove headfirst into learning and understanding a totally different art form and figuring out how to connect it to a learning environment,” Crow said. “I think it’s been an unbelievably transformative process both for our faculty and our students.”

Now that Angiletta and VandenBrooks have navigated the process, the two will work with other ASU units on creating Dreamscape Learn content, including in chemistry and the climate crisis.

Dreamscape Learn will also debut in K–12 classrooms and work will continue on the Dreamscape Immersive Classroom, a VR-enabled environment that enables students to interact in real-time as fully rendered life-like avatars, where they can also be networked with other immersive classrooms anywhere in the world.

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New study shows that students who participated in ASU’s Dreamscape Learn lab course performed better, were more engaged

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