School Seminar Program

Scalable and effective use of virtual reality for physics education

Dr John Debs
Senior Lecturer and ANU MakerSpace Founder, RSPhys, ANU

Virtual Reality (VR) is one of those technologies that has been “going to change the world” for many decades, having frequently over-promised and under-delivered. While there had been novel ideas of how VR might support STEM education, the hardware was often not sufficient and certainly not scalable to entire classes. However, in recent years, consumer-grade hardware has achieved incredibly high-fidelity and highly immersive virtual experiences, at affordable prices. Motivated by this, we have developed two apps that target only those unique benefits VR has to offer and have now completed the first significant study demonstrating educational impact of this technology.

The first app, “Dissonance VR”, simulates a basketball environment. Students are asked a multiple-choice question inspired by the well-studied Force Concept Inventory (FCI), and then given the world that manifests their choice. If incorrect, this world is unphysical, viscerally unfamiliar, and a narrator guides the student to reconsider and correct their misconception. Recent improvements to hardware have enabled us to scale our VR Lab to entire classes, with up to 60 participants able to undertake an immersive experience in one afternoon. I will share results from our first significant study, which accumulates 7 years of student data to compare over 100 VR students with over 300 non-VR undertaking the same course of study. The FCI is used as our baseline and metric for conceptual understanding. We find a statistically significant improvement in conceptual understanding of forces for those undertaking VR (p < 0.001, effect-size is medium-large), with relevant conceptual scores improved by up to 18% on average.

The second app, “Field VR”, is a dynamic Electric and Magnetic field simulator and visualisation toolbox. Recent advances in hardware and software updates now enable a multi-user experience for Electromagnetism, VR tutorials, and I will share early feedback from students, and discuss possibilities for future work and studies in the School.

Dr John Debs received his PhD in 2012 from the ANU, where he demonstrated the first use of Bose-Einstein Condensates for the precision measurement of gravity and inertial sensing. He continued this work as a USA Intelligence-Community Postdoctoral Fellow until 2015. In 2016, he founded the ANU MakerSpace: an interdisciplinary community workshop to support project-based learning and research. Accessed by all areas of ANU and with over 2000 members, the MakerSpace embodies the principle that people learn by doing. He has convened the Foundations of Physics course at ANU since 2012 and continues to innovate in his pedagogy and use of technology. This has led him to focus on Physics Education Research, most recently looking into the use of Virtual Reality for helping students visualise abstract ideas and correct their misconceptions in physics. John has been nationally recognised for his work in education, with a Teaching Excellence Award from the Australian Awards for University Teaching.

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Updated:  28 May 2022/ Responsible Officer:  Director, RSPhys/ Page Contact:  Physics Webmaster