Drax Files 19: the chemistry of Second Life

Students at Texas A&M University can learn about chemistry in a 3D environment in Second Life (image: Draxtor Despres)
Students at Texas A&M University can learn about chemistry in a 3D environment in Second Life (image: Draxtor Despres)

Second Life’s role in eduction has been something of a focus of late. Earlier in April 2014 we had the 7th annual Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference once again taking place in part in SL, and which featured the Lab’s CEO, Ebbe Altberg fielding a raft of questions from the audience. A recent segment from the Drax Files Radio Hour featured  Liz Falconer, Professor of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of the West of England (UWE), and Stylianos Mystakidis, E-learning Manager for the Library and Information Centre at the University of Patras, Greece.

Now the education theme continues with the latest instalment of The Drax Files, with a look at a unique experiment in learning being conducted by Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt of Texas A&M University and Kurt Winkelman from the Florida Institute of Technology, focused around students studying chemistry.

wendy
Dr. Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt (image via Texas A&M University)

“Specifically with chemistry, Second life is an amazing thing. So much of chemistry is based on [the] shapes of molecules and understanding the 3D nature,” Wendy says of the in-world science classes she oversees, and why chemistry in particular is a good match for Second Life.

She also notes the collaborative nature of the environment for learning as well. “You can walk around the molecule, you can sit on the molecule, I have interactive periodic tables. You have your friend with you, and your friend doesn’t have to be sitting next to you looking at the screen. Your friend can be at home, you’re in school together, you come in together, you build together. That’s important for the learning process.”

Texas A&M University operates an impressive, multi-region faculty within Second Life, complete with a dedicated web page in the university’s Instructional Technology Services website. Within the faculty regions sits “Dr. K’s First Year Chem Program”, which offers a grounding in chemistry in an open-air, interactive environment. This is where Wendy teaches chemistry in a manner she notes – and despite the cost of SL regions – is apparently more cost-effective than purchasing dedicated modelling software, because SL offers a much more flexible working and creative environment than dedicated tools may provide, and can thus be better utilised to suit the needs of her students.

A part of the interactive learning environment operated by Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt in second Life for her students
A part of the interactive learning environment operated by Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt in Second Life for her students

Up in the air above a portion of the faculty regions, and restricted to access by students, staff and invited guests, sit a number of research areas. It is here that Wendy, alongside Kurt Winkelman, studies the impact and effectiveness of teaching within a virtual environment when compared to more traditional classroom-based teaching. The study is funded by a National Science Foundation grant, and has grown out of a pilot programme run in the autumn of 2013.

For this work, Wendy uses two groups of students, each of whom is following the same course programme, with one group working in Second Life on the sky platforms, and the other working entirely in the real world. Within the virtual learning environment, efforts have been taken to present students with much the same requirements and activities their counterparts have to perform in the real world: gases must be handled, weighed, measured, etc., just as they do in a real-world lab in order for valid results to be obtained. The study is currently at the half-way mark, and due to complete in April 2015.

The NSF-funded study environments are located in the sky over the main A&M faculty space in-world, and like the facilities on the ground use the full power of SL's multi-media capabilities
The NSF-funded study environments are located in the sky over the main A&M faculty space in-world, and like the facilities on the ground use the full power of SL’s multi-media capabilities

One of the interesting outcomes of the study is that those students in SL behave in very much the same way as those in the real world chemistry lab. The same caution and responsibility is demonstrated in handling and manipulating butane as would be expected in a real chemistry lab, despite the risk of injury resulting from the flammable nature of the gas obviously being non-existent in SL. This in turn has resulted in the students working within the SL environment to retain a kinesthetic ability in using and manipulating the science equipment which is on a par with that demonstrated by the students working the physical equipment.

More interestingly, the students working in the SL lab reported they enjoyed themselves far more there than in the real lab, and felt they were much more focused, and suffered from less distraction. Even their ability to read-back and interpret data appears to be significantly better than seen within the real lab.

The kinesthetic learning (also known as tactile learning, wherein the student learns by carrying out a physical activity) results evident in the programme are interesting, as are the overall results to date.

Students in the study reported a more enjoyable experience when using Second Life, and exhibited an aptitude at least on a par with those working in a physical lab while enjoying better results
Students in the study reported a more enjoyable experience when using Second Life, and exhibited an aptitude at least on a par with those working in a physical lab while enjoying better results (image via Draxtor Despres)

The findings so far released as a part of the study – notably the results of the pilot programme – tally very well with the benefits of situational learning discussed by Liz Falconer in episode 15 of The Drax Files Radio Hour, where she noted the benefits students experience through narrative learning.

While chemistry is more a procedural activity than a narrative undertaking, the approaches used in the SL environment point very strongly to students working within the environment reacting in a similar manner to those placed in situational learning environments: their kinesthetic abilities are sharpened, even though the level of interaction with the equipment they’re using is very different to that of the physical lab, as noted above. Also of interest is the observation made as a result of the pilot programme that the artificial nature of the SL environment caused the students to be more focused on procedure and technique, rather than on results – a very important aspect of research chemistry.

There is still another year to go with the primary study, but the results, as indicated by Wendy in the video, seem to be reflecting those obtained during the pilot programme. as such, it’ll be interesting to see what does emerge when findings are fully published. In particular, it’ll be interesting to see if the finding examine the role played by aspects such as the viewer UI in shaping students’ experiences and learning abilities in the SL-based environments (e.g. were better results obtained purely because students found the virtual environment a more enjoyable environment for learning, or because the nature of the viewer UI encouraged a greater need for focus and help eliminate more common elements of distraction among students?).

Towards the end of the video, Wendy (Julia Tiraxibar in SL) talks more broadly about the potential of Second Life for education and educators, and makes some interesting and valid points about students travelling around SL (remembering that we’re talking here about students 18 and over, and therefore with the freedom of movement we all enjoy in SL). Her remarks here match the common-sense attitude expressed by Liz Falconer in episode 15 of The Drax Files Radio Hour.

This is another excellent video segment, one which takes a slightly different tack to others in the series, but which again offers much food for thought and which certainly stands as a very focused piece which would appear to be ideally suited for helping promote SL within the education sector. As such, it is one I’d strongly encourage teachers and educators to bookmark and not be afraid to show to colleagues – and indeed, for students to put before their teachers and faculty staff.

Related Links

Advertisements

Have any thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s