Physics Outreach and Instruction through New Technologies (POINT) is an ICASU project aimed at generating interest in physics for middle school and high school students through virtual reality (VR). Our goal is to increase student engagement with science and encourage more students to pursue AP and college physics courses.
This project includes three major goals:
- To investigate the benefits of using VR to explain physics in local classrooms.
- To develop further simulations to explain the fundamental physics of gravity and general relativity.
- To incorporate existing VR science demonstrations into outreach programs.
What is virtual reality?
Virtual reality (VR) allows users to experience a computer generated simulation or game in three dimensions. Head mounted displays, like the Oculus Quest, allow users to be fully immersed in the experience, and handheld controllers allow them to interact with their environment.
Benefits of using virtual reality
In VR, students can see demonstrations across a wide range of physical scales that would not be possible with table top demos. This feature makes VR an ideal platform for teaching students about gravity. Research has shown that students who are taught using VR experience many educational benefits, beyond the fact that it is fun. Below is a partial list of recent studies on the subject.
- A meta-analysis of 29 studies of immersive VR (using a head mounted display) found that the majority reported VR was more effective than, or at least on par with, traditional pedagogical methods (i.e. slideshows, lectures, 2D videos) [ Hamilton et. al 2021 ].
- Students who watched a video in a 3D immersive environment scored much higher in a learning outcome test than those who watched the same video on a 2D screen [ Rupp et. al 2019 ].
- Virtual reality increases feelings of technology related self-efficacy, which can impact student’s confidence when approaching STEM [ Ball et. al 2018 ].
- Virtual reality increases engagement and interest in the subject, facilitating discussions between experts and non-experts [ Kersting et. al 2020 ].
This body of research presents a compelling case that even a single classroom visit can have an impact on student engagement.
Over the course of the last year we sought and received approval from the Institutional Review Board to conduct an education research study with undergraduate students at UIUC. The first results from this study were recently published in the American Society for Engineering Education Annual conference proceedings. This was the first study to compare VR as a learning tool for general relativity to traditional physics demonstrations, like the ball and sheet demonstration (also known as the rubber sheet analogy). Participants were given a pre-survey to assess their prior knowledge of the topic and then asked to complete either the traditional physics demonstration or our new VR demonstration, before finishing with a post-survey. The pre-post surveys were compared and differences analyzed with p-values and a Cohen's d test. For more details, please see the paper (link coming soon!).
Bringing physics to local schools through virtual reality
As part of the outreach efforts of this project, we take portable Oculus Quest headsets from the UIUC IDEA lab and NCSA to middle schools and high schools. We use these headsets to show students existing science simulations. This experience is supplemented with an introductory lecture about the science topics covered in the simulation. Test
The visit typically takes about an hour, and timing can be adjusted as needed. Students are split into two groups; half experience the VR demo while the other half meets with a physicist, and then they switch. Everyone has the chance to put on a VR headset. Graduate student volunteers are available to answer any questions students may have throughout the experience.
For phase one of this project, we are working with a commercially available program (developed by Novelab) called Spheres, which has won many awards at film festivals. We focus specifically on chapter 2: “Songs of spacetime.” This simulation introduces gravitational waves and black holes through a 10 minute immersive experience. You can watch the trailer for this experience here.
Developed by graduate students here at Illinois Physics, the supplementary talk describes the science behind the simulation. The talk begins with a description of general relativity as a curvature of the fabric of spacetime, then explains what black holes are and how their motions can generate gravitational waves. It provides a more detailed picture of the science introduced by the simulation, and shows students how a physicist might approach such topics.
Number of people who have seen the VR experience alone
Number of people who participated in the full classroom demonstration
Total number of participants reached by this program to date
List of past demonstration locations: Urbana High School, Schlarman Academy, Science at the Market, Astronomy camp for high school girls, WYSE summer camp, Midwest Relativity Meeting, ICASU Conference, Astrofest.
Developing a virtual reality simulation
We are currently working to develop our own interactive VR experience to teach students about general relativity. The concepts included in the simulation will be:
Spacetime is a smooth fabric.
The curvature of this spacetime is what we recognize as a gravitational field.
- A good description of general relativity is: “Spacetime tells matter how to move; matter tells spacetime how to curve.” - John Wheeler
We can get ripples in the fabric of spacetime. These ripples are called gravitational waves and they can teach us a lot about the Universe.
General relativity is a necessary extension of Newtonian gravity, and yet we believe it is still incomplete.
Our simulation will address all of these concepts in short chapters, designed to be accessible to middle school and high school students. Volunteers from the UIUC computer science and physics departments are already working on the first chapter using Unity. Eventually, the code and simulation will both be made public for anyone who wants to use them.
Coding objectives for the first chapter:
- Create a curved grid that you can roll or throw objects at to see their path change. This will illustrate that “Spacetime tells matter how to move...”
- Develop a grid that can warp around objects as you move them. This should demonstrate that “...matter tells spacetime how to curve.”
- Explore more massive vs. less massive objects in the grid
If you would like to join the project, please email us! If you would like to see the code for this project, you can check out the github by clicking the button below.
This project is split into two main groups, the outreach team and the VR production team.
- The outreach team brings existing VR demos to as many people as possible. So far the outreach team has shown Spheres and our own VR simulation to undergraduate students at UIUC, high school and middle school students through schools and through summer camps, and to the general public at conferences and other outreach events.
- The VR production team is developing our own VR experience, using Unity. Work on chapter one, which describes gravity as the curvature of the fabric of spacetime, is already underway.
If you're interested in getting students excited about physics through virtual reality, this is a big project with lots of opportunities for hands on experience.
- code (Unity/C#)
- work directly with students
- assess effectiveness of technology in teaching
- test newly-developed VR simulations
Many of the opportunities associated with this project require no experience or prior knowledge, just curiosity! To join our team, please contact us below so we can add you to our Discord Server.
To contact us with any comments or questions, or to request a VR demonstration, please email email@example.com or click the button below!
If you would like to participate in this project, you can also request to join our Discord Server via email. Please let us know what portion of the project you might be interested in.
Future Goals - Outreach
We would love to expand this program beyond schools in the immediate area. This might include driving headsets to schools in rural areas in Illinois or to neighboring states, as well as helping schools that already have headsets implement this program. Our goal is to bring new technology and active research scientists to as many students as possible.
Future Goals - VR Development
We plan to make the developed simulation and the Unity project publicly available via GitHub. Our hope is to provide materials to people we are not able to directly reach, so they can design their own educational demonstrations. In addition, this content can serve as a base for others to make their own freely available simulations in VR using Unity.
POINT VR hosted Science at the Market June 25, 2022. Pictured here, outreach volunteer Brandon Buncher helps a child in a VR headset while several other market goers look on. Photo Credit: Cameron Alagna.
Outreach volunteer Amanda Gatto teaches a Science at the Market participant how to use a VR headset at the June 25, 2022 demonstration. Photo credit: Cameron Alagna.
A child reacting to a star being shredded as it falls into a black hole in virtual reality. This was at the Science at the Market demonstration June 25, 2022. Photo credit: Kristen Schumacher.
Students in the Schlarman Academy AP physics class experiencing black holes in virtual reality. Photo credit: Brandon Buncher.
A student at the Schlarman Academy classroom demo looks up into space inside the headset and smiles. Photo credit: Brandon Buncher.
A classroom demonstration at Urbana High School for the 10th grade honors science class. Three UIUC graduate student volunteers (Kristen Schumacher, Sonali Joshi, and Nijaid Arredondo) observe and help the class. Photo credit: Dennis Migut.
Another portion of the UHS 10th grade honors science class experiencing the VR simulation. Photo credit: Dennis Migut.
POINT hosted one-on-one demonstrations at the 2022 ICASU conference. Pictured here: tables with VR headsets, a poster describing the project, and chairs set up and ready for participants. Photo credit: Kristen Schumacher
Two attendees from the 2022 ICASU conference experience the VR simulation while graduate student volunteer Kristen Schumacher prepares a third headset for another participant. Photo credit: Joaquin Viera.
POINT VR hosted a demonstration of the intervention for the UIUC VR club. Pictured here, several students experience Spheres in the VR headsets simultaneously. Photo credit: Scott Perkins.
Nijaid Arredondo, a graduate student volunteer on the outreach team answers a VR club member's physics questions at the demonstration for the VR club. Photo credit: Scott Perkins.
Kristen Schumacher, a graduate student volunteer on the outreach team, discussing the science behind Spheres with several of the VR club members after they experienced the simulation. Photo credit: Scott Perkins.
POINT VR hosted a table at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting to show the Spheres simulation and explain the project to conference attendees. Pictured here, graduate student volunteers Kristen Schumacher and Nijaid Arredondo manage the table while Surabhi Sachdev and Nancy Aggarwal experience the simulation. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.
Surabhi Sachdev experiencing Spheres at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.
Graduate student volunteer Kristen Schumacher looks on as Thiago Assumpcao experiences the simulation at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.
Shawn Rosofsky experiencing Spheres at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.
Headsets on the table at the 2021 Midwest Relativity Meeting. Photo credit: Jessica L Raley.