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To bring science lessons home, make virtual reality more relevant, Stanford professor says

Photo of kids using cardboard VR viewers
Virtual reality can help kids learn about the world from a distance — but it can also send unintended messages about belonging, says Stanford associate professor Bryan A. Brown. (Photo: Holly Hernandez)

To bring science lessons home, make virtual reality more relevant, Stanford professor says

New research led by Stanford education professor Bryan A. Brown shows the impact of connecting VR learning experiences with students’ culture.

With remote learning likely to continue to some degree in K-12 schools this fall, science teachers are looking for ways to help students learn about the world from a distance.

Virtual reality offers one possibility—but it can also send unintended messages to students about where they fit in, says Bryan A. Brown, an associate professor of science education at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE).

“VR is a powerful tool, and it’s become extraordinarily cheap,” Brown says. “But there are a lot of subtleties embedded into this type of instruction that tell kids, ‘This is not part of your culture.’ ”

In a recent study, Brown led a team of researchers to explore the impact of elementary school science lessons using culturally relevant VR, where experiences are designed to be connected to students’ lives in their own community. We spoke with Brown about this research and how science teachers can get their students involved in creating culturally relevant VR.

Photo of Bryan Brown

VR science lessons often "take students to faraway places, or to a time in the past. That’s useful, but it also reinforces the idea that science is far removed from students’ lives," said Stanford associate professor Bryan A. Brown.

How prevalent is the use of VR in K-12 schools?

Not very prevalent. Part of it is that until very recently, three or four years ago, VR was incredibly expensive. But then Google pushed the envelope with the cardboard viewers, which made it much cheaper and more accessible.

The other part is the culture around cell phones. This technology works really well on a phone, and while students may not have laptops, they often have multiple smartphones in their home. Many school districts are so vehemently against the use of a phone as a learning device in the classroom that they wouldn’t even consider it.

Now, with students learning at home and everybody online, the big limitation is wireless speed and access. But the same is true of using video as lecture space. Teachers can have students download and watch the VR lessons on their own time, and then analyze what they watched. So yes, internet speed is a real issue, but it’s not a hindrance to teaching if you just plan differently.

Your research is focused on science education, especially for young students in urban communities. How do existing VR tools fit into that?

There’s a lot of VR 360 video available online, which gives students the immersive experience. But most of the resources for science education take students to faraway places, or to a time in the past. That’s useful, but it also reinforces the idea that science is far removed from students’ lives. And there’s often a narrator with a British accent, and a soundtrack with classical music. I’m not disparaging classical music, but it sends a strong message to a lot of kids in this country that this experience is not a part of their culture.

How did you change this approach for your study?

We wanted to help kids see that science is connected to their community—to embed it in their culture so that it speaks to their lives and lets them see the science that’s happening in their own neighborhood. For our study, we developed a lesson on food chains for fourth- and fifth-graders. We wanted to teach the larger concept of producers, consumers and decomposers but also apply it to their local context, with the type of food and stores in their neighborhood.

We also integrated elements to send a message of belonging, including locally popular music and voiceovers recorded by children and people of color. Every sound, every example, every community context should tell the kids, “You’re a part of this.”

What did you find?

The students who started out with negative attitudes about science—the ones who didn’t initially see science as relevant to their lives—had a bigger shift in their attitude after the culturally relevant VR experience. They were more likely to say they liked science, it was important to them, than the students who engaged with VR that was not culturally relevant.

We also saw that, after the culturally relevant lesson, students took what they learned and applied it to social issues. We asked them to tell us how the science related to their community. Instead of just repeating what they learned—say, that there are higher diabetes rates in their neighborhood and less access to local food—they talked about environmental justice, economic infrastructure, health disparities. That’s what we want every child to do—to take what they learn and apply it to other contexts.

What would it take for teachers to make VR lessons more culturally relevant, the way your research team did?  

Cultural relevancy is always about the kids in the room. You have to know your kids. The lesson that we made was very specific to our set of kids, and I wouldn’t say it would necessarily work in New York City or Florida.

The challenge is that teachers are overwhelmed. Teachers are always concerned, saying, “I don't know how to do this.” I tell them, “You know who’s really excellent at building technology? The kids.”

If you have 30 kids in a class and task them with creating a video, the likelihood that you end up with one really good video that you can use in your teaching for years to come is pretty high. The software already exists, and kids are phenomenal at learning and applying new technology. You can turn this into a project for students and start building up a database of culturally relevant videos at the same time.

Funding for this research was provided by Technology for Equity in Learning Opportunities (TELOS), an initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Education. GSE doctoral students Kathryn Ribay, Greses Perez and Matthew Wilsey, and former GSE postdoctoral fellow Phillip Boda co-authored the study.

Faculty mentioned in this article: Bryan Brown

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