Lehigh engineers collaborate on interdisciplinary summer project developing virtual reality lesson plans for local classrooms

After pulling a virtual reality headset over his eyes and picking up a set of controllers, a high school student finds himself on a nature trail.

As he moves along the rocky path on the side of a mountain, he encounters trees, vegetation, and trail signs identifying his location—the Lehigh Gap Nature Center—a wildlife refuge and conservation area that’s part of the Lehigh River Watershed.

While checking out the trail map and reading about the nature center, he’s distracted by a shiny black rock on the ground. He picks it up with his controller to take a closer look. A text box pops up to let him know he’s found a piece of anthracite coal and clue him in on a bit of history: Trains carrying coal once frequently passed through the area.

The student continues to explore until he’s completed the virtual lesson. Then, the engineers who created this trail simulation prototype quiz their tester for feedback.  

“We asked him how long he thought he was in there and he says like 10 minutes when really it was 45 minutes,” says bioengineer Brian Yeung ’20.

That’s when Yeung and electrical engineer Henry Levy ’20 knew they had hit the mark in creating an engaging learning tool—one that’s part of a larger virtual tour demo of the watershed produced by their Mountaintop Summer Experience team.  

“When you are highly immersed in something, you lose your sense of time,” says Alec Bodzin, a professor in the College of Education who served as lead mentor for the interdisciplinary team of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty that worked on the Summer 2018 project.  

Other team members included David Anastasio, a geology professor and chair of the Earth and Environmental Sciences department; Tom Hammond, an associate professor and associate dean of the College of Education; Scott Rutzmoser, a senior geospatial scientist at Lehigh; Farah Vallera, a professor of practice in the College of Education; Robson Junior, a doctoral student in the College of Education; and Sayed Abdul Bashir Sadat, a graduate student in the College of Education studying instructional technology.

Plunging into immersive VR

Learning about local geography and environment is an important part of high school science classes, Bodzin says. The watershed also has historical significance for the Lehigh Valley, adds Yeung.

The professors knew what they wanted to teach, says Levy, but they weren’t sure of the best way to go about it.

That’s where Yeung and Levy were able to apply their programming skills and interest in technology.

The team behind “Immersive Virtual Reality Development of the Lehigh Watershed” collaborated with Building 21, a competency-based high school in Allentown School District, to create an immersive learning technology for students who might not connect with the material in a traditional classroom setting.

“When [the Building 21 students] are outside doing data collection work, there’s no problem. They are engaged,” Bodzin says. “When they are inside a classroom environment, they would rather be playing video games or watching someone play video games.”

So Bodzin asked the students, “What if you had an immersive virtual reality headset that was kind of like a game [that had] learning challenges to do?”

The students expressed interest, so Bodzin and his team set out to develop a virtual field trip for students as well as a location identification game. During the Mountaintop Summer Experience, they created prototypes of their programs.

Over the course of the 10-week program, students of varying majors and class years engage with professors on new and continuing projects. Although the projects vary, they share a purpose—making an impact beyond the Lehigh University community.

Although virtual reality is no longer new, Yeung says, immersive VR learning is a potentially novel way to create interactive lesson plans, a concept Bodzin calls a “game changer.”

Desktop VR, which uses a desktop monitor or laptop screen, has been used in classrooms for about two decades. The downside, Bodzin says, is that it allows for distractions—checking email, for instance, or browsing other websites.

Newer immersive VR is an interactive computer-generated experience that typically includes a headset that displays realistic images and sounds, as well as handheld controllers that allow for simulated actions like reaching or grabbing.

“Immersive VR gives learners an active rather than passive experience,” Bodzin says.

To gather inspiration for their virtual reality environment, the team took a few field trips of their own, bringing along a 360-degree camera to capture what they saw.

While hiking the trail in the Lehigh Gap, Anastasio found anthracite coal on the ground, which led the team to build that part of the VR experience—allowing students to not only see the coal but also pick it up with the controller—to point out its significance to the area’s industrial history.

“That’s just an example of how we ‘spotted out’ something to teach, and we were able to sequentially decide how we wanted to put it into the lesson,” Levy says.

Levy and Yeung also had to figure out the most cost-efficient way to create their virtual reality interface.

“I think our first angle was to use drones, but we soon discovered that was better for smaller chunks of land,” Levy says. “We would not be able to just fly over the whole Lehigh Valley and just get that in high-definition.”

They decided to use the program Unity, which takes Bing Maps data and creates features of the region, including the terrain, in a user-friendly way. Yeung had taken a few computer science classes before the project and stretched his knowledge of programming languages from his classroom experiences to accomplish this task.

An inclusive learning experience

The initiative is continuing this semester as a Creative Inquiry to Impact project. Although Yeung and Levy have stepped away from the work, they are both excited to see the effort continue to move forward.

So far, the location identification game has been expanded from five spots to nine, Bodzin says. Students can now hit targets around the Lehigh River Watershed and receive contextual hints to help them if they get the answer wrong. Students can also win badges as they play, a concept borrowed from video games.

Increasing accessibility is also a goal, Bodzin says. For instance, informational text boxes are read aloud to students who have trouble reading, with the words highlighted as they are spoken.

“If you can replicate that kind of [field trip] experience that’s realistic in a virtual environment, then you can make learning experiences more inclusive to learners that have ability issues or impairments, and [it] also helps reduce costs and liability that might occur on field trips,” Bodzin says.

The lesson plan will be implemented in the Building 21 science classroom in the weeks ahead, says Bodzin.

Although the team was focused on one high school and one study area, Bodzin sees the potential to use it with other topics and age groups.  

Story by Madison Hoff '19, a student writer for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science

Brian Yeung and Henry Levy

Brian Yeung ’20 and Henry Levy ’20 collaborated on an immersive VR teaching tool as part of an interdisciplinary Mountaintop Summer Experience project. Photo by Laura Ott

Dr. Alec M. Bodzin

“Immersive VR gives learners an active rather than passive experience,” says College of Education professor Alec Bodzin, who served as lead mentor for the project.