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Extraordinary experiences - immersive learning at NYSCI

What does it mean to have an extraordinary immersive learning experience? Many examples likely come to mind – but I have to say, I’ve never experienced anything quite like the Connected Worlds exhibit at the New York Hall of Science…



Remember Second Life, the immersive online world where we could interact with others in real-time but as online avatars? Joining the fray of edtech hyperbole, it was going to revolutionize learning – and in some ways, it did provide a platform for some very interesting interactions and simulations. But it was so difficult to use, and it took some imagination to feel like you were “there”. Now we have VR goggles, and the tantalizing potential has taken a quantum leap – yet it is hard to “be there” together in real-time. If only it could be more like a full-scale Star Trek holodeck.


Enter the full-room immersive experience called Connected Worlds, big enough for an entire classroom of students. From an adult/STEM geek point of view, it’s a remarkably complex simulation of four discrete ecosystems that interact with each other – and with the decisions that the participants make about water distribution, plants, and animals. To the students who visit, it’s a playground to explore.




But what are they “learning”?


I was skeptical at first, when I walked in on a 20 minute session already underway. Students were busy running to and fro, “planting” seeds and moving “logs” so that the water (dynamic projected images) could be diverted from the waterfall, creek, or pond, to other areas of as desired. Students were making choices, or simply trying things out. It is real enough (to the children) that some even tried lying down in the virtual water to see if they felt wet.


I stayed long enough to watch a second group. This time I got to hear the “lead up” and the invitation. It was still rather open-ended. Soon it became clear that students WERE aware that their interactions did have a direct impact on the cartoon like flora and fauna – but what were they learning? Perhaps more than I could see – especially since I was not privy to the conversations about the experience that (I hope) occurred when the students returned to school.


Some clues about the anticipated efficacy might be found via Brad McLain’s research on Science Identity. Dr. McClain has studied experiential learning and what changes the trajectory of a student’s concept of themselves. At the core to this transformation is The Extraordinary Experience. Whether physical, virtual, or both (as is Connected Worlds), it’s an extraordinary experience that has deep meaning and generates lasting memories.


Conveniently, Dr. McLain has developed a rubric for scoring "experiences" based on 7 characteristics called "ELVIS" (experiential learning variables and indicators scale).




Based on my reading of ELVIS, it’s quite reasonable to anticipate that a well designed immersive experience like Connected Worlds, facilitated before and after by a master teacher who is gifted at activating student inquiry and meta-cognition, could indeed be extraordinary.


For me, surrounded by excited students, that alone was extraordinary…






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About the Author
  • Jim Vanides is responsible for the vision, strategy, design, and implementation of education technology innovation initiatives. His focus is the effective use of technology to create powerful learning experiences that help students around the world succeed. He has been instrumental in launching over 1200 primary, secondary, and higher education projects in 41 countries, including the HP Catalyst Initiative - a 15-country network of 60+ education organizations exploring innovations in STEM(+) learning and teaching. In addition to his work at HP, Jim teaches an online course for Montana State University on the Science of Sound, a masters-level, conceptual physics course for teachers in grades 5 through 8. Jim’s past work at HP has included engineering design, engineering management, and program management in R&D, Manufacturing, and Business Development. He holds a BS in Engineering and a MA in Education, both from Stanford University.
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