Going From What to Why with Experiential Learning, featuring Inspirit VR’s Aditya Vishwanath

Learning complex STEM concepts like physics or chemistry off a chalkboard is no easy task, because it removes a key factor from the equation – presence. Inspirit VR’s Aditya Vishwanath explains how giving that presence back ignites a learner’s innate curiosity.

Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bringing you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies to explore, enhance, and individualize learning for everyone. Today my guest is Aditya Vishwanath. Aditya is a PhD candidate in Learning Sciences and Technology Design and a Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University. He’s the co-founder of Inspirit, a company that develops virtual reality learning content. And his research focuses on developing technologies that support universal access to immersive learning content. Welcome to the show.

Aditya: Thank you. I’m so excited to be doing this.

Julie: That’s great. And we’ve had a couple of conversations about education, and the courses that need to be implemented into classes, and that sort of thing. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about Inspirit, where you started from, and where you guys are today?

Aditya: Inspirit was actually a research project that I started out with a friend and now co-founder of mine — her name is Amrita — and the two of us were both researchers in a lab at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. And we really stumbled upon this opportunity to explore and study what it would take to bring immersive VR to a few public schools in the city of Atlanta. And it was really just a phenomenal experience for the two of us, because what we thought was going to be just a few weeks of a project — where we were playing the roles of research assistance — exploded into what is Inspirit today. Our mission — and my research too, at Stanford — is really trying to be that bridge between the best of academic research and what we know about virtual reality and education, and then cutting edge technologies that can be used in industry and go straight into classrooms and learning environments. Inspirit was founded with that goal of accelerating the pace at which we could bring research findings of VR and education into schools, into universities, into learning environments around the world.

Julie: It’s definitely a big concern now, the speed of education. And not just how much we’re learning, because I feel like every day it’s like a firehose of things to learn. Now it’s a matter of how did the education systems keep up with the demands of change that’s taking place, both through innovation and changes within a company? It sounds like that’s something that Inspirit is trying to address?

Aditya: STEM education is what we do at Inspirit. And fundamentally, somewhere down the road, STEM education stopped becoming a hands-on interactive learning experience. And this was largely due to the needs of supporting larger and larger classrooms, more and more students, both in an online and an offline learning environment. And suddenly that personalization, that hands-on, that immersive interactive aspect to science and STEM education was completely lost. But a lot of the science learning today happens in a very passive way, with a video lecture or somebody giving you a passive lecture with a set of PowerPoint slides. And very rarely, are you interacting or actively solving a problem outside of a science lab. So our goal with Inspirit really was to bring back that hands-on piece and that interactive piece in a self-based, in a comfortable, and in an immersive environment using the power of virtual reality, both offline in schools and universities, and also online, if you’re learning anything from anywhere in the world.

Julie: I’m looking at the curriculum that you offer, and very science focused. And I’ve done my own personal research over the last little bit, just on the critical thinking skills that science offers. And I think this is one of those hidden gems that is a part of science that we never really tackled before, trying to analyze all of this through technology. But can you speak a little bit more to that, about the critical thinking skills and the skill bases that are taught within these courses that revolve around science? But there’s a deeper meaning in there for future skillsets.

Aditya: So, I mean, we have a lot of academic evidence that shows that when done right, immersive virtual reality can hugely and greatly promote deeper, critical thinking and problem solving skills and learners. And what we mean by that is, critical thinking — the way I like to think about this — is really just the ability for a student or a learner to be asking people questions. They are no longer asking surface level, high level, introductory, basic questions, but just by virtue of being immersed in this space — that is pedagogically thought out and that is designed in a very thoughtful way — can hugely change the way in which they ask questions. Now they’re engaging multiple bodies of knowledge, they’re actively pushing back at the information that they’re receiving, and they’re actively analyzing and engaging with it in a more immersive manner. So we notice very often in our pilot projects that the students tend to move their questions from “what” to “why” and “how”. “*How* does the mitochondria generate the energy that is required to power the cell? *Why* is the DNA helix shaped the way it is? *Why* does something happen in this way?” And it’s no longer “what”, “What is a mitochondria?” But it’s “Why is it the way it is?” And it’s really fascinating that just simply immersing yourself for a very short amount of time — our simulations on the Inspirit platform are also designed to be extremely short experiences — just with 46 minutes of VR can dramatically transform the way in which students engage with the material.

Julie: I’ve had so many different conversations — even in over the last week — about curiosity, and how the next generation is not curious right now. Even my own kids, I’m having a little bit of a hard time trying to inspire their curiosity.

Aditya: Right.

Julie: You’re telling me that within 46 minutes already, students are changing that question of “What is this?” to “Why is this?” or “How is this the way it is?” That’s huge. Why do you think that? [chuckles] I’m gonna ask *you* a “why” question.

Aditya: [chuckles] Yeah, so that’s a great question. And that’s really what I am researching right now at Stanford, and what we’re trying to answer with Inspirit. The way I like to think about it is, the most powerful thing that virtual reality is able to afford is this phenomenon of presence. This is a term that was borrowed from the social psychology space. I mean, presence is really just that ability for a tool or technology to make you believe that you are somewhere else. The fact that you can embody the shoes of another being, another space, another character, another experience is something that was just truly never possible before with any other technology. And we have evidence that when you experience something very visceral or something very powerful in a different space that you feel present in, so this could be something like the Great Wall of China — what a lot of these field trips in VR tend to do — or taking you inside the human body into a microscopic cell, or transporting you to the surface of the moon. And we have all of these modules on our Inspirit platform. We’re able to demonstrate that when you experience the topic or the process of learning in these new spaces, when you are situated and you feel present in these spaces, the conscious part of your brain knows that this is not real, I mean, it’s an animated world, really. And so the front part of your brain — the cortex — knows that this is not a real experience, but the real part of your brain, the part that’s usually designed for your fight or flight response, the part that is your survival instinct is essentially subconsciously fooling your body into believing that you are learning in this new environment, in a very hands-on engaging way. And this tends to activate more receptors in your brain, as well as more physiological indicators for being in a different place. So, for example, a very popular VR experience — that you may have also experienced — that we do a lot in our VR lab at Stanford is the “walk the plank” VR simulation, where you have a user walk a plank on top of a 50 story building. And they know it’s an animated world, but everyone’s going to start sweating, your palms are going to get sweaty at the very least, and that’s what presence is. You believe consciously that this is not ideal world, but subconsciously, unconsciously, your brain fools your body into believing you are somewhere else. And this leads to deeper retention in the long term, the deeper sense of behavior change in many cases that we’re also able to measure persists after the experience is over.

Julie: So interesting. The formula of being immersed allows you to become more curious about your environment, because you need to have more answers, I guess, in front of you. It’s kind of that unfolding answer there. But I think it’s so critical right now to where we are in education. And the fact that students don’t have that same curiosity of why things happen or how did things happen. Google provides most answers to kids, and the calculator provides the answers to mathematical equations. The approach that you’ve taken, obviously, with sciences, which– sciences are so important, so underrated and everybody knows that. And I think it’s fantastic that you’ve done that. Do you have a more favorite course than another, yourself? Like, are you more interested in physics, or the biology side, or chemistry, yourself?

Aditya: Personally, I have always grown up being super fascinated by physics, and I think our physics simulations on the Inspirit platform are really super interesting. And there’s another point that I also want to touch on that you just mentioned, about the curiosity piece that seems to be largely missing in our schools today. And you’re absolutely right. I mean, there is– I read the statistic just a few months ago, and it just really blew my mind. More than 50 percent — that’s half the number of students — who start a STEM course — whether at the college level or at the school level, whether online or offline — do not complete the course. There are very high attrition rates, very high dropout rates, especially at the community college level, at later stages of high school. And these dropout rates severely affect underserved and marginalized communities much more than others. And a huge reason for why this happens is because of that lack of solidifying the fundamental topics. It’s because of the lack of connecting these seemingly distant topics to reality, to your everyday life. It’s building that critical thinking, that confidence, that self-efficacy,y and that belief that “I can do this and I want to know more about this.” And we have so much evidence about how VR can promote this, with just very short 10 minute long simulations. And that’s really the biggest thing that we’re trying to address with our platform. Coming back to the physics topic, we have one simulation in our platform, which is this physics playground like experience, where you’re dropped into this world, this park where you have the ability to manipulate and move around various objects and learn virtually all of Newton’s laws of motion by throwing a ball, by throwing something down a ramp, by rolling objects on the floor. And then we give the user, the student, the control to manipulate and change parameters in this world so they can do things that would not be possible in the real world, like change friction of a surface, change the mass or the weight of a ball, and then throw it and see the free body diagram of that ball as it flies through the air. And then we also let them change things like gravity. So now you can experience throwing the same ball on the surface of the moon, and understand that physical intuition for the laws and the equations of motion, before you get back into your class and start solving the math equations. So we have evidence that shows that when you just spent 10 minutes building that intuition for “What happens, does the ball go higher or lower? Does something move faster or slower when I change X, or when I change Y?” Just building that for 10 minutes in the virtual world, followed by deep assessments and an active math equation that you would anyways be doing in the classroom. That combination is what needs to the self-efficacy of this critical thinking, this confidence amends deeper, deeper interest and engagement with science.

Julie: I just want to go back to what you’re saying. So throwing this ball in just a– in a virtual environment under Earth’s circumstances, shall we call it. Regular circumstances. And then being able to take that same person and immerse them into being on the moon and trying to throw a ball there. That is something that’s never been able to be done before. We’ve never been able to do that. I didn’t get to do that in high school. So I can only imagine the potential of curiosity and query of “why” and “how does this work,” and “let’s try this again,” and adjusting levels, and adjusting positions and things like that. And all of a sudden the whole experience becomes a laboratory experience of trying different things and teaches us to be curious, to critically think about the ramifications of one thing happening over the other. And again, another skillset that I don’t believe is taught well enough in the schools these days.

Aditya: Right.

Julie: So your program, Inspirit, who are you directly working with right now? Like I know you mentioned, you’re from Stanford University. Are there any schools that are implementing your programs into their schooling at this time?

Aditya: Yes. So we work across the United States and also internationally with private schools, charter schools, public schools, and also low-income public title 1 schools around the country. And our goal really is to work very closely with the teacher and with the classroom to understand how we can meaningfully integrate this technology in their environment. Virtual reality is really a buzzword that is being thrown around everywhere today, to explain anything and everything from something that’s a snazzy, glamorous looking headset. Many people are trying to sell VR for its novelty or they’re trying to sell VR as the silver bullet that will solve all education problems. But really, as a company, our work in VR is just half the battle. The other half of the entire picture is really understanding curriculum, understanding learning outcomes, understanding the background of the students and the teachers and the school. The context is so relevant and so important to meaningfully bring this into a school or a university. So we work both at the K-12 and the higher ed and early undergraduate education levels. And we partner directly with schools and institutions and teachers and classrooms. And we also go through other distribution partners, like a publishing company or another ed-tech distributor, so that we can then, through them, access a larger audience of users. But however we get to the classroom, it’s very important for us to be aligned with standards, with curriculum. So we build in assessments into our modules and our simulations, and our assessments and our testing is designed to be customizable. So a teacher can also edit it or change it to to customize a lab — whether it’s a physics chemistry or biology lab — to her syllabus or her curriculum or her everyday lesson plan. We also build activities and other worksheets to be done outside of VR, that a teacher can use to better integrate VR into the classroom, because VR is not the only thing someone’s doing in the school or at home. They are doing a bunch of different things and it’s very important to understand context and how VR fits there. And then the last thing we do on the hardware side is really trying to be as agnostic to hardware as possible, so we can be compatible both on high-end VR headsets, but we have also built out a non-immersive 2D platform that works at a PC, a Mac or a Windows machine, so that many students can directly get started with working in virtual labs today at home, as well as in the school. And really being close to the teacher and responding to the needs is so important. I mean, to give you a very quick example, because we did so many pilot studies over the last six months, we decided to include a social VR, collaborative VR experience as part of our platform. This was never on the cards for us, and we would have totally missed out on the signal. But we were able to recognize this as a very important feature only because we spent so much time in the schools and the classrooms. And so our platform actually also comes in with a social component, where students can meet each other in a lab and together solve these virtual activities in the virtual space, even if there were many, many miles away from each other.

Julie: That’s so important, is to build that collaboration piece.

Aditya: Mm-mm.

Julie: I’m a big advocator of collaboration, and started XRcollaboration.com with our partners. And I think this is one thing that’s so relevant to having a good education about how things are going to work in the future. And nobody can do anything alone. So having that collaboration piece, where the students are able to go and discuss problems together and figure out how to solve them, it’s a key component to platforms these days, to be able to have that meetup and have that communication piece, so it’s not just one sided.

Aditya: Absolutely.

Julie: Then the teachers can also observe the feedback of the social interactivity, and who’s contributing more than another, or what type of contributions are they contributing, and maybe the courses ain’t aligned right or something like that. So there’s a whole bunch of different purposes for that observation.

Aditya: Absolutely.

Julie: That’s great. I love that you’re supporting teachers. I think some of the key components that you just spoke about, too. Right now teachers are struggling more than ever to try and figure out how to teach their course with relevancy and also introduce technology, not on a full time basis, but as an aid to teach a message or a lesson. And sounds like you have done a really good job of trying to implement this and become that support for the education system that’s taking on your program into their classes. So congratulations on that.

Aditya: Oh, thank you. We’re only getting started, and I’m super excited for what lies ahead.

Julie: Do you have a roadmap of other courses that you’re going to integrate, or are you going to stick with the science focus and then just broaden out into biology and physics and chemistry?

Aditya: Actually, our platform goes live by the end of July. And by by going live, I mean, we’re building an entire teacher dashboard, a student dashboard, the entire classroom management tools, along with these labs and these simulations. Right now, we’re launching with almost every introductory topic in physics, chemistry and biology. But we want to be a STEM education platform. And so we’re very keen on jumping into math and anatomy and other lab-based, as well as other simulation based experiences across all of STEM education.

Julie: So if I was a teacher or somebody from the education system, what kind of piece of advice would you give any of our listeners right now, with regards to learning and teaching using XR technologies?

Aditya: Oh, that’s a tough one. I think the biggest piece of advice I will give teachers is to definitely not to be afraid to give it a shot, to try it out for once. It is a challenging technology. It is a new technology. It is a very novel technology. And I think teachers already know these things. It’s really the people like me, the engineers, the developers of these tools that need to know these better. But integrating these technologies into your lesson plan, into your everyday curriculum and aligning these with existing assessments, with existing testing is what is going to sustain long-term use. Adopting VR or XR just for the novelty or for the wow factor that it brings to the table will add value in the short term, but in the long term it’s going to only be another device that collects dust on the shelf. So it’s incredibly important from the get-go that you think about even the practicalities of things like having a classroom management tool, aligning this with curriculum and with standards. Which I think teachers already tried to advocate for, and we do our best to support them right from the very beginning.

Julie: Can you tell everybody where to find yourself, and how they can get a hold of you and where they can find it Inspirit VR?

Aditya: So our website is inspiritvr.com. And you can always get in touch with me at aditya@inspirit.com. I’m also available on Twitter, and social media is also another great way to get in touch with me. But I’m always happy to talk to people who are interested in working with us and learning more about virtual reality and education.

Julie: Well, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you again, Aditya.

Aditya: Thank you so much. My pleasure.

Julie: And thanks to all of our listeners. You can check out this podcast at xrforlearning.io. My name is Julie Smithson. Thanks, everyone. Take care.

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