UNCW Researchers Will Use Virtual Reality Technology to Encourage Students to Consider STEM Careers

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Computer science assistant professor Toni Pence and Watson College of Education assistant professor James Stocker are leading a team of six UNCW scholars who will use virtual reality technology to enhance learning and encourage students from underrepresented groups to consider STEM careers. The project is funded by a $394,606 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The immersive experience is tied to the curriculum, and the students learn by stepping into the virtual shoes of a STEM occupation. The project will focus initially on grades 3-5 but eventually could expand to middle school curriculum, said Pence, the principal investigator. 

“We have found that if we get students interested in their elementary school years, there is a much higher chance that they will go on to college and choose a STEM career,” she said. 

The project, which involves collaboration between the Department of Computer Science and the Department of Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle, Literacy, and Special Education, will use VR technology to enhance learning and to introduce students to real-life problems and challenges encountered by people working in STEM jobs. 

Stocker, WCE associate professors Amelia Moody and Amy Taylor, and computer science assistant professors Elham Ebrahimi and Brittany Morago are the project's co-PIs. Several undergraduate students will have the opportunity to participate in the research. 

As part of the experience, students will take a virtual field trip to the beach, assuming the role of a park ranger, wildlife officer, water quality expert, researcher, or other STEM-related occupation. They will encounter real-life problems that involve decision making, applied learning and critical thinking skills. 

The project has several goals, among them to encourage more underserved students to consider careers in STEM fields and to create a virtual learning experience that is affordable for school systems that have limited resources. The need for more STEM workers is widely known, and many do not require advanced degrees, Stocker said. 

Another goal is to prevent students from becoming disengaged as they approach middle school, Stocker said. The VR-enhanced curriculum is designed to support learning by helping students see where their education can lead them and how what they learn can be applied outside the classroom. 

“It is academic rigor,” Stocker said. “The kids will have ‘fun’ things they can do. But we also have to ensure that they get academic skills they can use.” 

Eventually, the software and accompanying curriculum could be expanded for other age groups and adapted for use by state parks, government or conservation-related organizations for use in educational programing, Pence said. 

-- Tricia Vance