Virtual Learning Offers Innovation in STEM Education

Seeking to add dimension, both figuratively and literally, to math and science learning, the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University has announced the launch of the first Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) at Chesapeake High School in Essex, MD.

Modeled after the ARENA laboratory at Johns Hopkins used for Department of Defense and NASA projects, the VLE provides a 3D, gaming-like experience for students learning about the real-world applications of science, math, and engineering. One notable example of the project's potential is a virtual, accurate-terrain tour of Mt. St. Helen's in Washington. Students and teachers ride in a morphing (aircraft/car/boat) vehicle through the area and discover the geology, ecology, animal life, etc. of the legendary volcano.

"It's a different way for them to learn, and for teachers to present, math and science concepts," said Jim Miller, APL's senior software engineer for the project. While currently limited to the two subjects, plans for future projects over the coming year include exploration of other disciplines, including social studies and English.

The VLE's unique high-tech features include:

  • 10 high-definition 72-inch TV monitors, arranged in two, five-screen semi-circles;
  • Custom-designed digital switch and touch-panel controller;
  • Adjoining classroom housing 30 workstations, each outfitted with three monitors, that can run the same scenarios as the larger virtual facility so lessons can be applied on an individual or team basis.

Tim Frey, assistant supervisor of the APL group developing the Virtual Learning Environment prototype, noted that declining student interest in math and science careers in recent years presents an educational crisis for the entire country. "Studies have shown that U.S. students are lagging behind in math and science," Frey explained, "and we hope this pilot program will capture and maintain students' interests in these subjects and help expose them to careers in these fields, as well."

Funding for the project, an unusually ambitious and costly one for a high school environment, came from a United States Department of Education Star Schools grant initially awarded to Maryland Public Television. The grant focused on the potential of gaming and simulation technologies to provide contextual, active, and effective learning experiences. APL has contributed software development and deployment to the VLE, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Technology in Education is providing teacher training on the system's use, as well as assistance in developing curriculum and scenarios to optimize CHS's benefit from the onsite lab.

About the Author

Scott Aronowitz is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. He has covered the technology, advertising, and entertainment sectors for seven years. He can be reached here.