VR biology lab experience leads to student success

Photo illustration of a student interacting with a VR course.

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2022 year in review.

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 teamThe team included: Michael Angilletta, associate dean for learning innovation, EdPlus; Christofer Bang, senior lecturer, School of Life Sciences; Madison Delaney, UX researcher, EdPlus user experience; Tray Geiger, senior research scientist, EdPlus Action Lab; Annie Hale, executive director, EdPlus Action Lab; Rachel Luchmun, senior research scientist, EdPlus Action Lab; Alysha Ramirez Hall, senior research scientist, EdPlus Action Lab; Liesel Sharabi, assistant professor, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication; John VandenBrooks, associate dean for immersive learning, EdPlus; Christian Wright, assistant director, School of Life Sciences. 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.

A rendering of what a person sees when they are in the Dreamscape Learn VR lab

This rendering demonstrates what the VR lab experience looks like for the user. Image courtesy Dreamscape Learn

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.”

Group of students in classroom using VR headsets and joysticks

Students participate in the Dreamscape Learn VR lab. Image courtesy Dreamscape Learn

A fundamental shift

ASU is harnessing the Dreamscape Learn experience so students are better able to learn basic biology principles, though the technology’s beginnings were in entertainment.

Parkes had always loved technology but believed virtual reality was too isolating until he saw a new version in 2016 that used motion capture to put people inside a computer world.

“I saw something different. I was doing it with friends. I had a body presence. It was truly like being inside of a movie,” he said.

“I thought maybe this version of VR could have success in the world of entertainment.”

That led to the creation of Dreamscape Immersive, which has five VR adventure venues that the public can experience.

Just before the pandemic, Parkes met with ASU President Michael Crow, who then experienced the Alien Zoo. Alien Zoo was developed based on a movie concept Parkes and Steven Spielberg had been working on.

“It was a Eureka moment,” Parkes said of Crow’s reaction. “He walked out and said, ‘There’s a new way of teaching here.’”

Crow said there’s no secret to the power of technology to expand and enhance learning.

“Who isn’t moved by the power of Hollywood storytelling and cinematic experiences?” he said. “I was blown away at the Dreamscape Immersive experience – my brain immediately started calculating how we could merge this technology into our curriculum.”

Parkes added, “As important as the immersive technology and pedagogy are, the unique thing here is the embracing of an emotional cinematic narrative in the teaching of science.”

The pandemic shut down the entertainment venues, so the company was able to concentrate on Dreamscape Learn, the education side, to scale the concept quickly.

Students as heroes

The wildlife sanctuary story became a starting point for narratives written specifically for the biology courses by Michael Angilletta, President's Professor in the School of Life Sciences and associate dean of learning innovation at EdPlus, and John VandenBrooks, a professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and associate dean of immersive learning at EdPlus, in collaboration with Dreamscape Immersive.

They came up with six topics that would be covered in any introductory biology course: scientific reasoning, cell signaling, physiology, genetics, population biology and ecology.

“And we basically did what any scriptwriter would do: We sat and pitched big ideas,” VandenBrooks said.

“What could be the backdrop for a story, and how does this relate to the learning outcomes we want to get across?”

Angilletta said the team knew what they wanted the students to be able to accomplish when they completed a module.

“But how do we do it so there’s a reason and a problem to solve that’s both interesting and engaging? We want the student to be the hero in the story,” he said.

There was endless rewriting as the team dealt within the constraints of telling a coherent story, teaching biology concepts and adhering to what is capable not only within virtual reality but also with a two-dimensional laptop version.

“There were a lot of rules we learned about storytelling while working with Walter Parkes,” Angilletta said.

“We didn’t know those rules even though we’ve watched hundreds of movies, like there are three acts in a story, and the characters have to go from a low point to a high point. You end on a mystery rather than giving all the answers, so the students have something to talk about in class.”

The three-act storytelling model works nicely with science, which has its own three-step process: discovery, exploration and results.

One challenge is that the introductory course covers a wide range of biology, so the team had to collaborate with dozens of other experts from ASU to create a completely new environment where students can solve biological problems, Angilletta said.

“We spent a lot of time talking to other biologists, asking them, ‘Is this interesting? Is this plausible? Here are the options, and which one makes the most sense?’” he said.

In the Dreamscape course, students are challenged with learning about and solving problems that are relevant, interesting and realistic, such as designing a treatment for cancer.

Students still participate in labs and lectures, using all the problem-solving, quantitative reasoning and teamwork skills that are needed to learn and apply biological concepts. But the difference is that the Dreamscape Learn experience enables students to be transformed directly into scientific explorers, who become emotionally attached to the problem-solving process.

“We believe VR is a medium that blends with other modes of learning rather than replacing them,” said Josh Reibel, CEO of Dreamscape Learn. “For every 10 minutes of VR, students engage in three hours of other learning and study in this program. Part of what’s so exciting about these early results is that they show that the VR-based narrative motivates students to work extremely hard to master deep scientific and quantitative concepts away from the VR.”

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.

And ASU will continue to track the success of the endeavor. Over the next five years, Hale and the research team will look at results of individual students and the cohorts.

“We’ll be looking at what classes they take later, along with their career trajectory, their persistence in the School of Life Sciences and their graduation from ASU,” she said.

Parkes sees Dreamscape Learn as a step toward increasing scientific literacy among everyone and hopes it will eventually be adopted by universities and schools around the country.

“As someone who’s worked in mainstream cinema for 40 years, it has been exciting to see how good storytelling can fundamentally contribute to how we teach and how we learn,” he said.

“Teaching begins with engagement — and we’re finding that if our students are emotionally engaged in the pedagogy, they are far exceeding the outcomes we’ve seen in conventional teaching approaches. And that gives us tremendous inspiration and imperative to find ways to expand the reach and impact of Dreamscape Learn.”

Top image courtesy Dreamscape Learn

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