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By Olivia Sanchez

INTERGALACTIC WILDLIFE SANCTUARY— One minute I was making my way through a San Diego conference center swarming with ed tech visionaries and investors. The next, I was sitting in a dark, eerily quiet room being outfitted with a giant headset, goggles, headphones, and hand controls, and praying it had all been sanitized first.  

Suddenly, I was floating through the lush Alien Zoo in an ethereal gondola. I was surrounded by beautiful, colorful, dinosaur-like creatures that seemed to exist in perfect harmony. A god-like voice warned me that a species called the spotted glider was dying at an unusual rate.  

To prevent the spotted gliders from going extinct, the voice instructed me to tag and track a sick-looking glider. When it died, I used the hand controls to pick up the creature, and suddenly, the glider’s body was right before my eyes. I used the hand controls to make an incision, and compare its organs to healthy organs to identify what caused the glider’s death. It became clear that there were tumors on the glider’s lungs, and that it was suffering from a contagious lung cancer.  

My trip to the Alien Zoo wasn’t just for fun or a total abuse of my role as an education journalist. It was the opportunity to experience what about 8,000 students at Arizona State University are already doing on a weekly basis as a part of their introductory biology courses. Replacing traditional labs, this new technology from Dreamscape Learn is used to reinforce the foundational life science concepts they are learning in the classroom.  

Dreamscape Learn is a product of DreamWorks and Arizona State University, combining the narrative storytelling of Hollywood with educational principles to engage students and revolutionize the way they learn, said John VandenBrooks, associate dean for immersive learning at Arizona State University. 

Students still attend traditional biology lectures, and in addition to their virtual reality labs, they spend about three hours a week analyzing what they encountered in the Alien Zoo, VandenBrooks said. 

“We use that narrative engagement to drive the more rigorous quantitative work that students had to do in between,” VandenBrooks said. “That gives students a set of transferable skills, because they’ve had to solve novel problems they can’t Google the answer to that they care about solving.” 

At the end of each section, students are tested with real-world problems that are similar to what they’ve encountered in the Alien Zoo. 

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State, said the technology creates a memory of learning that isn’t associated with a rigid, structured way of learning science. 

“What happens is, we teach science and math in the way that scientists and mathematicians learn it. Which means that it’s being taught to 25 percent or less of the population in a meaningful way,” Crow said.  

Data from an in-house study done last spring indicates that this new technology seems to be working; students in the Dreamscape Learn lab version of introductory biology were 1.7 times more likely to earn an A in the class than those enrolled in the traditional model. And the study found that across gender, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (measured by Pell grant eligibility), students enrolled in the Dreamscape Learn version earned higher median scores on lab assignments than their counterparts who were not. The only subgroup that did not score higher was honors college students, whose scores stayed the same across both groups.  

Nidhi Hebbar, co-founder of the EdTech Equity Project, which advises companies and schools about education technology, said, “it’s hard to ever say that a technology has no racial bias in it, just because our technologies are built by people and on top of the world that we live in. But the fact that they’ve kind of considered some of these things, I think, is really good.” 

In virtual reality technologies, she said, it’s important to consider whether the contexts being represented might be more familiar to some students than others (unlikely with the Alien Zoo!) and, if people are represented, that they accurately represent the demographics of the students who are using it.  

This technology can also be an immersive classroom, where professors can transport their students anywhere in time, space or scale. When I tested it, we bounced from the Colosseum to the inside of a cell membrane to King Tut’s tomb to the surface of Mars, all in a matter of minutes. 

I was mesmerized by what I was seeing in the immersive classroom, but became distracted when I looked down at my hands and they were white! My skin is light brown, so this rendering looked totally foreign to me. This is a small detail in the grand scheme of what I experienced using this technology, but one that I haven’t forgotten weeks later. (In the Alien Zoo, my hands appeared gloved.) Hebbar said that, even though students might not identify a lack of representation as problematic, it can send negative messages to them over time and affect their learning.  

As a journalist, I do my best to keep my opinions to myself. I’m making an exception here, however, because my reflections might help our readers better understand this technology and how it could work for students.  

I was shocked by how bearable the virtual dissection was. My first dissection experiences are, unfortunately, seared into my memory. They took place in regular reality, in a tiny middle school in Southern Oregon where, at dissection time, the entire hallway reeked of formaldehyde. We had to dissect a jellyfish and an earthworm. I hated every minute of it. Virtually dissecting a make-believe animal that didn’t have to die was way less troubling.  

And, it was very easy to focus in the Alien Zoo. I couldn’t think about anything except what was right in front of me. I couldn’t check my phone. I wasn’t worried about what other people thought of me. But I also had no idea what was actually going on around me. If someone had had a medical event or a bad guy had entered the room, I don’t think I would have been able to tell.  

The Dreamscape Learn technology has already advanced from when I tried it out in late April, said Josh Reibel, CEO of Dreamscape Learn. They are now able to do the same level of immersion with slightly less hardware, he said. And they don’t plan to stop with the Alien Zoo. They are developing a narrative-driven chemistry curriculum that will take place on earth but will include some science fiction elements.  

The vision, he said, is to make this technology widely accessible so that students of every background can reap the benefits they are seeing at ASU. To do that, they are trying to slim down the amount of expensive hardware required and offering a no-code development option, so that teachers can create their own immersive classrooms and take students wherever is most relevant to their curriculum. 

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