Virtual field trips key to innovative teaching for ASU scientist
The online news page, Discoveries, by the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently took note of Arizona State University biogeochemist Ariel Anbar, profiling his innovative work in undergraduate science education. In June 2014, this work earned Anbar selection as ASU's first Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor.
Anbar is a President's Professor in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, where he teaches and does research in the geosciences. This is a field where much of what we know comes from world geological sites of particular relevance.
"There's no substitute for taking students into the field when it comes to teaching them how we explore the unknown – how we came to know what we think we know about the history of our planet," Anbar says. "But the reality is most undergraduates taking geoscience courses – even many geoscience majors – don't get much field experience. They may have one or two really great field trips, but they won't get to explore the classic locations around the world that helped us see the planet, and ourselves, through new eyes."
To remedy this, Anbar has put much effort into developing a series of immersive virtual field trips (iVFTs) in conjunction with ASU education technologist Geoffrey Bruce and ASU associate professor Steven Semken, and various geoscience colleagues around the world. Their efforts are supported in part by NASA and by the NSF. The project is now extending beyond geoscience, with faculty from other fields developing field trips using the same technology framework.
For Anbar, each virtual field trip can "provide at least some of the gains you would get out of a real field trip," but they are accessible to many more students, and at far less cost, than a comparable physical trip. “Real-life field experiences are critically important,” says Anbar. “But the reality is that most people will never visit any of these locations. With the virtual field trips, they at least get a serious taste of what’s out there.”
Computers are central in another of Anbar's efforts: wholly online courses using interactive technologies. Working with a platform developed by start-up Smart Sparrow, Anbar and Lev Horodyskyj, an instructional designer at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, built an online game-like course, titled "Habitable Worlds." Students begin with a field of stars and by learning and applying basic science concepts, they must locate a star with a habitable planet. This course, which makes use of the iVFTs as well as other immersive and interactive technologies, is geared toward non-science majors.
"If online is done right, it ought to do a better job of teaching science to non-science majors than many large face-to-face lecture courses," Anbar says. "Too many of those courses train students to think of science as a body of knowledge they need to master. Many online courses are no better. Our goal is to use online technologies to teach large numbers of students that science is not about mastering what is known, but about how we explore the unknown."