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Teaching Soft Skills with Science in VR Labs, with Labster CEO Michael Jensen

Science is one of the toughest subjects to get kids interested in, made more challenging by the relatively high cost of supplies. That’s where Labster comes in; gamifying the experience in digital labs, and imparting life skills along the way.

Julie: Welcome to the XR for Learning Podcast. My name is Julie Smithson, and today I have Michael Bodekaer Jensen from Labster. Michael is a tireless visionary and the founder of multiple technology companies. Michael is also part of Labster, a fast-moving, award-winning company that focuses on revolutionizing the way science and lab safety is taught at companies, universities, colleges and high schools all over the world. The platform offers advanced virtual laboratory simulator, where students and employees can work with real-life challenges in an online environment that stimulates reality. Welcome, Michael.

Michael: Perfect. Thanks so much, Julie, it’s an honor to be here. And thanks much for the great intro. I think you’re covered perfectly many of the things that I was hoping to say.

Julie: That’s awesome. Well, please tell us a little bit more about Labster. I know that in today’s world we’re looking for those accesses to education and learning. And I’d love for you to share with us more about Labster and what you offer.

Michael: The overall vision of Labster is to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world. We’re really of the strong belief that if we are going to solve big global challenges — such as global warming — we need thousands of young, bright minds working together and trying to solve these important challenges. I think innovation always is, what we’ve seen over and over again, the key driver for solving important, critical global challenges.

So my co-founder myself started out with this idea that, OK, as individuals, there’s no way we are going to be able to solve these gigantic global challenges. But what if we could inspire thousands of students to try? And not only try; also, to believe in their own ability to solve these challenges and then give them the skills, the concepts, the knowledge that they would need to go out and solve these challenges. So that was sort of the main motivation and driver, when we started business nine years ago, and it still is today, really trying to understand this concept. Also, it was driven a lot by us realizing the way science is taught today. And my co-founder, he’s a science teacher as well. We found that it was really hard to engage the students. It was often, as science is seen as one of the most boring topics, and at the same time, one of the most expensive topics to teach today. So it was mind boggling for us to see that. And knowing how important science education is for solving global challenges and for innovation, why are we not really solving that? So we thought, OK, why don’t we try and solve that? And I had some background as well in the gaming industry. So we thought of, well, what if we just build, basically, a flight simulator, but for science? Where we could create or use the innovative gaming technologies and game designs, as well as learning pedagogies, and try and create the most immersive, interactive experience that you can imagine, to teach science in a much more fun way? And then, how that would empower and inspire these students to solve these challenges and believe in their own ability to solve these global challenges, which they can. We often find the students struggle with their own self-belief or confidence. And those were some of the main things that we really wanted to tackle. So, yeah, the very short pitch of what Labster is is essentially a flight simulator, but for science.

And then there’s a lot more to it. We have interactive animations that shows concepts. You can zoom in and fly into cells and understand science on a molecular level as well. And you can even explore Mars, or go on missions to see not just how you can learn a topic, but also how you can apply that topic to solve global important challenges, which is really important for student motivation as well. So those concepts combined, and then we add in a little bit of machine learning and A.I. to kind of optimize the algorithm of helping the students learn through these simulations. And then you have Labster. That’s sort of the very short pitch of a very complex or great solution that we have today.

Julie: I think one of the things that you did touch on was about the soft skills developments that happen when you teach sciences. And just recently, I did a presentation on how K-12, using augmented reality with sciences, will help build those soft skillsets from the moment they jump into school and build their knowledge and education in the world. And I think sciences are so extremely important, more important than they get credit for in the school system. I think that the soft skills of collaboration, exploration, critical thinking, the what-if scenarios, and the discovery that takes place in sciences is really the core subject of STEAM, which a lot of education systems follow today. And building those skillsets of soft skills using virtual and augmented technologies, focused on sciences in these classes of chemistry and biology, I think that it is a perfect way to introduce, really, a saving grace of these soft skills in our next generation who desperately need those to build on their own personal humanics and become independent of their own thinking, in a world where we’re dealing with robots and automation coming to replace these jobs. Maybe you can speak to a little bit more on how you focus on these soft skills within your programs.

Michael: Yes, it’s a really good point that learning a lot of these soft skills through other topics, such as the sciences, is a really powerful way for them to master them as well. We actually care a lot about curiosity. So it’s in a way not as directly a soft skill, but it’s an important characteristic for students. And if we can inspire their curiosity, it can drive a lot of the other learning that is critical for their development. So we typically design our simulations — and in fact, by the way, a simulator for us is typically something like a 25-minute minigame or simulation game where they go on a mission, they talk to patients or to Martians or whoever — it might be relevant for the topic they’re learning. And then they go through that dialogue, understand a challenge. They get curious about how they might be able to help these people by solving their challenges. They go back to the laboratory and then they solve that. So through each simulation, there’s always a narrative where they get to interact with other players, develop that skill, collaborate with other players within the simulations, and also try to really structure their thinking. So they apply, for instance, more self-reflection throughout the simulation. So we encourage the students to really step up and reflect more on what did they just experience. You know, why did they experience that and what did they learn from that specific scenario? One interesting thing, as well, you can do when you use virtual reality, or just virtual training in general — it works, by the way, both in browsers and in virtual reality, you can often get the same effects — but what you can do there is actually, you can encourage failure. And that’s actually a social skill or a sort of a skill for students that is really important to learn. That they open themselves up to failing. Because it’s really, truly through failure that you learn and understand important concepts. And so we often work with teachers or professors and experts to design learning experiences that are actually encouraging failures, or failure-driven learning. And initially, students may struggle, they may lose a little bit of their self-confidence. They might find it hard. But by carefully designing these faces of learning, we can actually boost the students self-confidence through failure, celebrating those failures, and make them see how each failure is actually a step forward for them in their learning experience. So all these different skills, like collaboration, learning, self-confidence in their learning ability, and structuring their thinking as well as how do they approach a problem and solving that for a specific topic is all concepts we would design into each of these learning experiences.

Julie: And I think the… going back to your background in gaming — and it’s been my belief that the gamers will save the world, because I feel like they’ll be able to to build out the branching narratives of analysis and build those independent learning platforms and pathways and things like that for students to engage in the content — and when it comes to winning or failing, the games inspire them to engage even more. And I think that’s where sciences/gaming/education come together to to engage the students in a digital way.

Michael: Yeah, and it’s really interesting to reflect on how much, I think, untapped potential we still have within this space. Oftentimes… a few years back online learning through video-based learning became very popular. But it’s actually still a very passive way of learning. It’s a similar challenge that you have as a classroom where as a teacher, I won’t be able to personalize my learning or teaching to each individual student. It becomes really difficult. But in the gaming industry, they’ve worked for years and invested billions of dollars in understanding how is it that individual players learn, stay motivated, engage and how can we optimize the game play, basically, such that we keep that engagement high, even through struggle, where struggle sometimes is actually even good. And what we really do at Labster is try to work with top leaning experts within game design, as well as learning sciences and pedagogy, as well as then topic experts, and breaching those three different, very different distinct types of skillsets. We can create something truly magnificent, in terms of learning experiences for these students that engages them. I think you’re talked about something else as well, and I think a really important topic here, is the role of the teacher in the learning experiences that the students go through. It would be good to also touch a little bit upon, because when we talk about these simulations helping and guiding the students, we’re actually focusing a lot more on how can we help the teachers — how can we empower the teachers in the classroom — and help them engage their students in the learning.

So as an example, where also data analytics and big data becomes relevant in this, is that we provide teachers, for instance, with a report. Typical use case of that would be that the teacher asked their students to play a game as homework. So OK, tonight, go home, play this game; rather than writing out a report, you get to play a game, which most students really love — or I should say, all. And then the teacher next morning gets a full report saying, these are the areas where the student struggled the most. This is where you can really drive and support your teaching to your students and engage with them at their specific level. And we a number of different research studies, absolutely astounding research, learning outcomes; results actually doubling in the learning outcomes when teachers applied this type of learning. A sort of data-driven learning with the engaging part of the simulation. So I think there’s so much potential still out there. We are even just, I feel, scratching the surface of what we can do. And by continuing this close collaboration with teachers, topic experts, learning sciences experts, and game designers, and bringing all those worlds together, we can truly transform education for the better.

Julie: And then the collaboration of teachers globally, who are able to participate this way and offer their skills and their knowledge to students around the world, no matter where they are. And I know before we started recording, we spoke about the opportunities in remote places where they don’t have the experts or even, thinking about having access to the knowledge base in their communities, isn’t there. And using this technology, you’re able to reach those students. Curious to know more. It’s actually one of the really big motivators and drivers for me personally. The huge impact I see, and I realize more and more every year that we can have in enabling and empowering teachers and students around the world.

So I have a couple of really exciting projects we’re working on is enabling, for instance, high school or K-12 students in getting access to science at a level of quality, as well as access simply to the laboratory training they need. Giving them this access through virtual training has immense, huge potential. So we worked with low-income schools across the U.S., worked with different partners. Often, actually, companies are willing to support this through corporate social responsibility. And they want to give back to the community, or even alumni of high schools who want to give back to their high school, where we find donors to fund the roll out of laptops to these schools. So where they cannot afford a physical laboratory, or have very limited access, is typically the challenge. We can now give these students unlimited access with just a few laptops for each school. In Nigeria, for instance, as an example, they have very limited access to laboratory facilities, yet science skills could have such a profound impact on the infrastructure and development of the countries. And so there we have donors rolling out laptops across the country now installing Labster as an alternative to the physical labs, and then the limited capacity that you have them, after doing the virtual training — just like a flight simulator training — you would go into the limited physical lab facilities they have, and they can reach far more impact with much, much less budgets.

And it applies to the whole world. We work with the Danish government now, also, on rolling out this technology across the country to more than 300,000 students as well to really empower their students, because it’s not only the access to the laboratories; the fact that we can create an environment in which they can get more excited about science, they can learn through failure and help them prepare and build up their confidence before they go into the physical labs is a huge positive impact for the students’ learning. It’s really exciting, these impacts. And then maybe just to give a concrete number on what’s actually the impact here, I mentioned that we see a 2X — a doubling — in the learning outcomes in numerous different studies. And then we also see often that the student engagement and learning, especially for low-knowledge students, who would obviously often in the past, struggled to keep up their engagement and self-confidence and learning outcomes significantly increases, because they can go at their own pace in these simulations. And ultimately what that means is we had one case in the US — actually one of the top universities — saw a decrease from dropout rates from 20 percent to 50– sorry, to 5 percent. So a 15 percent drop in dropout rates, because suddenly the students really understood. Not only did they understand the science concept; they found it exciting.

The engagement piece, I think, is very often under-appreciated. Just how important it is for us to engage the students, make them excited about what they’re learning, and then they will often find a way, then they will learn. But if we don’t make it interesting for them, then the world they live in today, where they’re bombarded with so many exciting, interesting things all the time, if we can’t meet them at that level, then we won’t be able to engage them in the learning. So, super excited about this.

And again, we’re just scratching the surface, and in fact, we’d love to work with more partners from around the world, and how we can roll out this technology as an alternative to expensive physical labs, and really empower the teachers and students in leveling up the science education to a whole new level.

Julie: Well, I think that’s a great way to end the podcast. Loving to learn. I think that’s one of the biggest changes in our world today. And already, with the stats that you just provided, you’re showing that engagement of students who want to know more, and they’re not leaving school. And I think that’s such a harsh reality that a lot of kids do not like school and they do not love to learn. And we really need to change that. And I think this technology is is how we’re going to do that.

Before we sign off. Michael, please tell everybody how can they access Labster?

Michael: Yeah, so I mean, the jump into, and email me, Happy to help. We didn’t even talk about the whole corporate training side. We help large companies train their employees as well. And then universities and high schools around the world. So, love to work with anyone who sees potential in this.

Julie: Thank you so much, Michael, for joining us today on the XR for Learning podcast.

Looking for more insights on XR and the future of learning? Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter @XRLearningPod and connect with Julie on LinkedIn.

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