My six year-old nephew wakes up on a Saturday morning and plays Lego Star Wars on the Wii. He enters the sprawling 3D world of the game. He flies, drives, walks and jumps through it. He interacts with hundreds of objects. He understands scale, importance and each object’s relationship to each other within the game. He understands the design and logic of each spaceship, weapon and invisible forces, and how they are used. He knows this world better than his own physical neighborhood. He has built a holistic understanding of this world, far beyond his understanding of any non-fictional environment.

My six year-old nephew wakes up on a Saturday morning and plays Lego Star Wars on the Wii. He enters the sprawling 3D world of the game. He flies, drives, walks and jumps through it. He interacts with hundreds of objects. He understands scale, importance and each object’s relationship to each other within the game. He understands the design and logic of each spaceship, weapon and invisible forces, and how they are used. He knows this world better than his own physical neighborhood. He has built a holistic understanding of this world, far beyond his understanding of any non-fictional environment.

Then on Monday morning he attempts to understand the human brain by viewing a diagram on a tablet (originally designed for a textbook) in his first-grade classroom.

So what happens when you combine the human brain diagram and a 3D environment?

The answer is Virtual Learning, and it literally opens up new worlds in STEM education. Students walk through magnetic fields, fly through the dense clouds of the Planet Venus and cross underground magma chambers to understand plate tectonics. A consistent acknowledged flaw of STEM learning is reliance on theory and lack of concrete experiences. How do educators now take advantage of students’ newfound abilities to explore the inside of a human cell or fly through a black hole? With Virtual Learning and 3D internet technologies, the abstract becomes real. Three-dimensional visualization brings STEM ideas to life – abstract concepts like gravity and the Big Bang Theory become experiences to be explored. 

Virtual Learning is an internet-based technology that allows students to step into 3D interactive environments based on STEM ideas. It puts students inside of their subjects. From a PC, tablet or phone, students have a first person, self-guided experience with their studies.

Virtual Learning worlds complement text and pictures with a 3D experience to truly engage students. They supplement STEM learning much like the old diagram – to display location, context and supplementary information. Learning that is 3D-based is the STEM conduit, the mediator that bridges the gap between the powerful abstract world of STEM ideas and the “tangible” world of the student. It gives students context to build mental models and better understand STEM ideas. They can see how light enters the human eye or how sound enters the human ear; Virtual Learning is the empirical medium that transforms ideas and theory into experience and understanding.

Students step inside of the atom to understand its structure. They travel through an iPhone to learn how it operates. They become a part of a subject or complex idea; this is the magic of Virtual Learning.

Students today are different. Virtual Learning is an effort to make learning more effective, relevant and engaging to today’s 3D-video game, technology-saturated kids. The National Science Foundation concludes, “As a general principle VR [Virtual Reality] improves learning; when it does, by providing the learners with new, direct experiences of phenomena they could not have experienced before, either in direct interaction with the real world or using other technologies.”

Virtual Learning provides students with free, on demand access to powerful visualization systems based on their schoolwork. Visualization and exploration-based engaged learning software is a powerful learning experience. As a supplement to traditional schoolwork, it helps students to see, experience and understand abstract ideas. Never before have students had the ability to see gravity or travel through the Ebola virus. At its core, these visualization and experiential tools are about creating new models of understanding by taking the best of existing educational pedagogy and pairing it with the world’s most powerful visualization tools to spur comprehension of complex phenomena.

The 3D visualization properties of Virtual Learning make STEM ideas come to life. Abstract concepts like time and the Cartesian plane become experiences to be explored, accessible to every student. NASA’s Software Technology Branch declared; “By using virtual reality in education material now considered too difficult for many students and taught even to advanced learners only at the college level could be mastered by most students in middle school and high school.”

The Center for Educational Technology reports “With the help of three-dimensional graphics software, educators are building a new visual language that bridges the gap between the concrete world of nature and the abstract world of concepts and models.” 

Virtual Learning technologies are ideal STEM learning tools because they help students formulate authentic mental models of complex phenomena. Mental models begin the process of providing "meaning and form" (Riggins and Slaughter, 2006) to ideas. They create a foundation to integrate "ideas, assumptions, relationships, insights, facts, and misconceptions that together shape the way an individual views and interacts with reality" (Steiger and Steiger, 2007). Mental models are internal representations of concepts and ideas that we use to build deeper comprehension of a conceptual domain. “In STEM, instructors want students to understand the underlying principles of scientific theories, to reason logically about those principles and to be able to apply them in novel settings with new problem sets. “(Rapp, 2005)

For example, let us take arguably the most complicated STEM idea today, the Higgs Particle and the Standard Model of Particle Physics. Once a student has created an initial mental model of the Higgs Boson, they then are able to intake, process, filter and organize additional information about the Higgs Particle as they acquire it.

The 3D Higgs Particle exploding on their screen- then suddenly disappearing as they travel through it- helps to form a mental image, or “representation” of the idea. Whereas before ideas such as the Higgs Boson and the Standard Model of Particle Physics were nearly impossible to communicate to children, my six year-old nephew now understands the basics–a strange particle appears then disappears unlike anything else in the known Universe. Its real-life lifetime is 1.6 10-22 seconds, or about ten-sextillionth of a second, but fortunately its representation in the Virtual Learning environment lasts longer. The boy has begun to internally conceptualize the idea.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I understand. I do and I remember.” – Confucius

Virtual Learning engages the student, allowing students to be fully involved in STEM learning instead of merely passive observers. It draws its power from three well-established principles:  experiential, self-directed and visual learning.

Experiential Learning: 

Students learn underlying principles and master necessary behaviors through active experimentation. Learning in Virtual Learning also can be understood as an everyday field trip where students are “taken” somewhere to better understand ideas. This approach is highly engaging and helps students better connect academic concepts to real life.

Self-Directed Learning:

The Virtual Learning program is a facilitator. It sets the stage for self-directed learning. Once the stage is set, the student may engage it as she chooses.

Visual Learning:

Dynamic visual representations of ideas allow students to process greater amounts of information more efficiently.  Half of the human brain is dedicated to visual processing. Visually, the human brain can process 1,000,000,000 bits/characters per second.  When coupled with a student-controlled environment, students are able to see relationships based on their own actions.

The problem with advanced, next big thing, bleeding-era education technology is that the fancy tech stuff either does not exist (i.e., theory, framework, proposed direction), costs a fortune or is impossible for educators to access in the classroom. The big leaps may as well be a 1979 record in the old Billy Joel song “It’s still Rock and Roll to Me.”

Fortunately internet-based 3D Virtual Learning actually exists right now and is free to schools. Because the primary architects of the technology have decades worth of experience in the classroom and large-scale education reform, Virtual Learning is designed for the education end-user. One click and the student is in the virtual world.  Internet-based 3D programs open onto a new page, just like any other website. They are now part of the everyday education experience.

No special equipment is needed, just a keyboard and mouse to navigate through the virtual environment. Two-dimensional up and down scrolling becomes 3D navigation where we can fly, walk,and drive through programs. Sure, in the “near future” experiences will occur in virtual reality headsets for total immersion, but for now educators can use these unparalleled learning experiences to build student mental models and understanding of STEM ideas with the equipment and connections already in their classrooms.

From a delivery standpoint the patent pending 3D window is a platform that allows immersive environments to be accessed over the internet.  It provides students and educators with immediate access to 3D learning programs instead of wading through a two-year purchase cycle, equipment upgrades, and all of the other usual obstacles. The new world of the 3D Internet is linked; programs are accessed through websites, emails, simple links, documents and PDFs.  Seconds later programs load and open into STEM virtual environments to become a seamless part of the online learning experience.

Technology advances in education are never just technology advances, but new tools that enrich educators.

Like the old Billy Joel song, technology is irrelevant in it can’t be easily accessed in the classroom. Real innovation occurs when content delivery innovates alongside technology; flying through the layers of an IPhone touchscreen to understand how it works is cool, but to truly impact STEM education, technology is not enough. Artificial environments must be designed for real classrooms.

Imagine a classroom where free STEM learning is delivered directly to teachers every week in their email inbox, hours after it was completed. This is “Just in Time” STEM education. Each week subscribers receive a program and lesson plan via email providing the classroom with the latest, most timely STEM learning possible. “Just in Time” STEM education engages students through topically relevant STEM issues and the latest news, research and discoveries to reinforce learning. From flying through an iPhone when a new phone is released to flying through the Ebola Virus as researchers attempt to fight an outbreak, Virtual Learning flips the STEM model from stolid scientific repository to highly relevant current events. The ultimate goal is to capture student attention and ensure STEM is always relevant.

Brett Reid is Vice President, Technology and founder of SUNRISE VR. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. Reid saw the potential of his virtual reality systems to help underserved Chicago students learn by introducing powerful visualization tools into the educational process. His research led to the creation of specialized immersive virtual reality learning systems, primarily used in controlled academic environments. His goal is to provide schools with the access to the same tools he created for the private sector and various government agencies and transform schools into real incubators for new ideas and exploration.
Dr. Wylmarie Sykes is Vice President, Instruction for SUNRISE VR.  She is a former professor of English at the City Colleges of Chicago, author, high school board president, and founder of Operation Safe Child in Maywood, IL. She received her doctorate in Education from the University of Iowa, and holds four other Master’s Degrees in disciplines ranging from Puritan literature to reading.