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A group of 11th graders traveled from their chemistry class at Dwyer Technical Academy in Elizabeth, N.J. to the center of atoms and molecules.

Eager to explore this foreign dimension environed by electron orbits, the voyagers clutched atoms, felt them vibrate and got up close and personal with particles as they morphed into molecules. The students assessed radioactivity trends and learned the difference between solids, gases and liquids — and were back in time for the next class period. 

Obviously this field trip was simulated. But thanks to improved mobile virtual reality (VR) technology, students who don’t have a predilection for science are able to turn an abstract idea into an immersive learning experience.

“Chemistry is one of those topics that doesn’t often connect. The kids are left wondering what they’re going to do with it in the real world,” says Eric Nersesian, a university lecturer at Ying Wu College of Computing (YWCC) at NJIT. Nersesian was awarded a grant by Oculus Education, a branch of the Facebook-owned VR leader, to study the potential and impact of using VR to teach chemistry to high school students. “Kids are saturated with rich, multimedia experiences. They’re glued to their iPads and phones yet we’re still teaching with old textbooks that don’t connect with them. Changing up the medium is a big deal.” 

This unorthodox approach to assisted instruction required the use of a VR educational app created by Mel Science, which aligned with the curriculum and was downloaded onto a Galaxy smartphone. The phone, which snaps into the Samsung Gear VR headset, is operated by a remote controller using VR technology powered by Oculus. These tools enable solo, group and supplemental immersion activities that transport students to new dimensions and spur classroom discussion.

“Once the wow factor of VR plateaued, the students began to explore the interactive features the technology offers,” recalls Nersesian. “They were able to build atoms, add electrons and use the periodic table to change elements.”

Nersesian is still evaluating the effectiveness of the three-month-long study, but says he did notice that VR had a “positive impact on the students’ attitudes toward chemistry, and their comprehension toward the material is better, as well. VR,” he says, “is a great way to connect the content with the message. It makes the lessons much more engaging to the students.”

(From left) Vassili Philippov, CEO of MEL Science; Jason Goldstein, a chemistry teacher at Dwyer Technical Academy; Wilfred Dake, a student at Dwyer Technical Academy; and Eric Nersesian, a university lecturer at NJIT.

Both VR and its close cousins, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), are poised to expand exponentially, redefining consumerism along the way. According to researcher Global Market Insights, the global market for AR products will swell 80 percent to $165 billion by 2024. Last fall, the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, made headlines when it announced its interest to incorporate virtual shopping in its stores and websites.  

“But it’s also going to be a game changer for training and education,” predicts Nersesian, “especially in disciplines that require you to travel, build something, approve plans, or that have a 3D representation, like mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, city planning and aeronautics. It’s much quicker and cheaper for people to collaborate this way.”

NJIT will dip its toe in the interactive computer-generated experience this fall by conducting a VR learning community study within the freshman year seminar funded by Oculus Education. The noncredit course teaches basic professional principles in a collaborative format to students who have similar academic goals. “But 23 percent of students miss out on the experience due to scheduling conflicts,” says Nersesian. “We have a lot of commuters at this university, so how can we grow the cohesion of these learning communities? Let’s try VR as a potential solution. They will use headsets to connect with each other in a virtual room.”

Not only does simulated training allow learners to absorb basic material at their own pace and convenience, it’s quickly becoming a viable resource for overstretched teachers, who are saddled with limited resources and hard pressed to connect with every student who is disengaged from the material they are required to teach. “VR lets us cherry pick that precious one-on-one time,” says Nersesian. “We get to decide how to offload work from the instructor.”

What’s more, VR has the potential to improve gender and racial diversity in STEM fields. “The Elizabeth school district is in a low-income, urban community,” explains Nersesian. “The students have a hard time connecting to the sciences because they do not have direct access to positive role models of those disciplines in their communities. This technology could reverse those trends and misconceptions imbued culturally by exposing the students to future potential career paths, which is an essential part of the learning process.”

As VR reaches wider adoption, YWCC is adding two tracks of classes for immersive media and procedural content generation to its multimedia concentration within its information technology curriculum. These tracks of classes will cater to students with an interest in the extended realities (virtual, mixed or augmented reality), and 3D computer graphics.

“It will be an offshoot of our game development program,” explains Nersesian, who will teach procedural content generation and an extended reality studio in the fall. “There’s a big job market for mobile VR and mobile AR in New York City. By learning how to integrateAR and VR into the game engine and create procedural 3D computer graphics — which are the two in-demand skillset areas — our students will be well suited for the growing job market.” 

In September, Nersesian will return to Elizabeth to test the new education app he’s building with YWCC capstone students for a robotics class at Dwyer Technical Academy. Using the Oculus Go, the latest standalone headset to hit the market, Nersesian hopes to use visual simulations to help students better acclimate to the abstract skillsets of procedural thinking and programming concepts in the physical and hands-on learning environment of robotics. 

While he’s eager to gather more insight into VR’s impact on learning outcomes and retention in secondary education, Nersesian says the real joy comes from watching marginalized students slip on a headset, sideline stereotypes and breakdown barriers to reimagine and redefine the career opportunities available to them. “That’s the real beauty of VR,” he says. “It levels the playing field.”