Changing Education through VR

Have you ever tried to teach plate tectonics to kids? I have. I used lots of different ways to explain it. Children would yawn. I used movies, I used my hands to simulate the movement of the plates.. I used movies.

I went to the Keck Hall of Science at the Smithsonian and there was Science on a Sphere.I wanted to sit near the globe and see the program , but the kids were not moving. They sat as if they were enraptured watching the display on the globe. Wow, I thought. And then they bounced to the exhibit but many sat and sat and looked and looked.

I used to try to share this information, but ..I was never sure that kids understood it.

From the deepest ocean trench to the tallest mountain, plate tectonics explains the features and movement of Earth’s surface in the present and the past.

Plate tectonics is the theory that Earth’s outer shell is divided into several plates that glide over the mantle, the rocky inner layer above the core. The plates act like a hard and rigid shell compared to Earth’s mantle. This strong outer layer is called the lithosphere

That is how you know technology works.

This is the Science on a Sphere installation in the new Global Ocean Systems exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. The sphere uses four projectors to wrap images around a six-foot diameter sphere.  There were four short videos on ocean system science that seemed to hold the audience’s attention. The small theater containing the sphere is a beautiful space – somewhat intimate but still connected to the broader exhibit. Lots of luck getting kids to move so you can sit down under the globe.iu

It is a beautiful learning space.cur

The exhibit answers these questions in visualization.
What best describes the ocean?
Ever-moving body of water?
Dramatic, yet hidden and slowly changing landscape?
Source of at least half of Earth’s oxygen?
Chemical mix of every element?
The ocean is all this and more.


The multi-media experience—“Science on a Sphere”—includes four programs that highlight complex aspects of the ocean.

This huge, interconnected system comes to life on a six-foot sphere at the center of the Global Ocean Systems gallery. The multi-media experience includes six programs that highlight complex aspects of the ocean. Data from global ocean observations play on the sphere’s surface, providing a space-age perspective on the ocean.
Immersive , virtual reality based programs like this are yours to share on the desktop now. You can do a flat screen projection of this program.

Science on a Sphere Explorer is now available for download.

It is a program that you can load onto a PC or Mac, and then manipulate a 3-D view of the earth with the same kinds of weather, geological, environmental, geographical and astronomical visualizations, some with interactive displays, that are used on the spheres in museums around the world. Articles about the new program do alert us that it is a big download (it’ll require around 15 GB on your hard drive), so if you’re interested do make sure there’s plenty of space on your system.

I’ve included links here to a brief news article about the program, which includes several still and animated examples of the kinds of data you can display with it, and to NOAA’s “SOS Explorer” home page, where there’s more info and a link to download and install the program.

For folks who got super-excited when Google Earth came out, here’s another 3-D model of the world with similarly awesome potential. It’s called the Science on a Sphere Explorer, and it lets you view tons of animated planetary data, from the age of the sea floor to the airborne migration of CO2 to hurricane tracks dating back to 1950.

Science on a Sphere is a NOAA tool that projects different layers on a huge ball, creating a virtual earth you can walk around in museums and classrooms. It’s now available as a desktop program for Windows and Mac, so you can probe natural (and unnatural) phenomena from home in popping, 1920×1080 resolution. Be warned it’s a huge download that eats up to 15 gigs of hard-drive space, though those willing to be patient will reap fantastic rewards.

Here are a few of the ways you can explore the planet. Note you can rotate the screen to find and zoom in on any spot on earth. This is the basic Blue Marble view with real-time clouds—peep all those hurricanes in the Pacific:

Go here to see all of these remarkable graphics.
Hurricane tracks from 1950 to 2005 color-coded by strength, red being the strongest and blue being tropical storms and depressions:
Density of cropland:
The atmospheric transport in 2006 of various aerosols like dust (red-orange), carbon (green), sulfates (white), and sea salt (blue):
Satellites and space trash circling earth (this one’s really fun to zoom in and out of):

A nearly real-time map of earthquakes:d7dcde951

Need more?

The educational material created to support SOS is available here, including scripts, lessons plans, and evaluations.



Virtual , or Real..Augmenting Learning

Learning has new ways of introducing ideas and ideational scaffolding. Virtual reality is one way of changing the learning.

“virtual reality”
Simple Definition of virtual reality

: an artificial world that consists of images and sounds created by a computer and that is affected by the actions of a person who is experiencing it.

The internet of things renders this simple definition to be limited.

Here is a Virtual Reality Site that gives nuances to the definition. We will start with the definition and then go from the research to simple projects.

“The definition of virtual reality comes, naturally, from the definitions for both ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’. The definition of ‘virtual’ is near and reality is what we experience as human beings. So the term ‘virtual reality’ basically means ‘near-reality’. This could, of course, mean anything but it usually refers to a specific type of reality emulation.”

“We know the world through our senses and perception systems. In school we all learned that we have five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. These are however only our most obvious sense organs. The truth is that humans have many more senses than this, such as a sense of balance for example. These other sensory inputs, plus some special processing of sensory information by our brains ensures that we have a rich flow of information from the environment to our minds.”

“Everything that we know about our reality comes by way of our senses. In other words, our entire experience of reality is simply a combination of sensory information and our brains sense-making mechanisms for that information. It stands to reason then, that if you can present your senses with made-up information, your perception of reality would also change in response to it. You would be presented with a version of reality that isn’t really there, but from your perspective it would be perceived as real. Something we would refer to as a virtual reality.”

So, in summary, virtual reality entails presenting our senses with a computer generated virtual environment that we can explore in some fashion.

At the University of Illinois, I encountered , the Cave.

The Cave


This shows the hardware. The CAVE was immersive.

The term “CAVE” refers to any virtual reality system that uses multiple walls with multiple projectors to immerse users in a virtual world. The first CAVE was built in 1992 as a method of showing of scientific visualizations. Now, many universities have their own CAVE systems. The CAVE is used for visualizing data, for demonstrating 3D environments, and for virtually testing component parts of newly developed engineering

. The examples I saw were one walking tour of Florence, a Roller Coaster Ride, a Walk in a Garden, and a program that shows children how to cross a street. There was also a farm scene but what I remember about that was touching a flower and hearing a bee coming at me. That was fun.

Another iteration of it was the “Cube”

You can explore some projects of the cube online at this site.

The ISL Cube is an immersive, stereo-capable (true 3-D) visualization chamber manufactured by TAN Projektionstechnologie of Dusseldorf, Germany.

It is located in a specially-constructed wing of the ISL building. The six surfaces of the Cube are 3-meter-square acrylic panels coated with a dark rear-projection screen material. The walls are 10mm thick and the floor and ceiling are 35mm thick. The front wall slides open to permit access and closes completely to ensure immersion of the user in the space.

You can’t take this example home, but it is amazing to explore. There are high school installations of the cube.


At Wayne City High School in downstate Illinois, the students have downloaded the Syzygy source code and are developing Cube applications in their school’s computer lab. In 2003, they coded a visualization of the dynamics of the lorenz attractor.

But that is high level immersion. As a school teacher I could just visit and hope to be invited to learn at the University of Illinois. It was a great introduction to VR.

The Internet of Things, IOT has some examples to share. It did not matter that I knew about these things, I had no tools to share them with students except through NASA and the University of Illinois . Here is the video of the Internet of Things.

The ultimate gift is this online link to ESRI

Instructional Materials

A variety of subject-focused, standards-based instructional materials is available to enhance inquiry-based learning with students. All activities are free and completely online. The instructional materials require no installations or logins and are device neutral.

– See more at:

This is the first of a two page sharing.