Extended Reality (XR) in STEM Learning

September 16, 2021

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The need for STEM education in the 21st century

STEM refers to a curriculum that encapsulates four significant disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In contrast to conventional subjects, STEM Learning helps shape the intellectual self by teaching relevant skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. STEM learning is not just about mastering subjects but is about using leveraging knowledge to innovate. 

STEM Education is critical in the 21st-century world for various reasons, some of which are listed below:

  • critical thinking and problem solving have become critical components of any professional’s life because of the changing dynamics of skills needed in the future of work;
  • in a future work world, science and technology will be the basis for most of the professions, and children who will be in the workforce in the 21st-century world will need decision making and creativity skills;
  • STEM education facilitates interdisciplinary understanding, which is deemed to be an essential foundation for future development in the 21st-century;
  • STEM academic courses are known to develop higher levels of creativity when compared with other general education courses;
  • STEM education benefits both men and women equally, without any gender biases;

Using Extended Reality (XR) to Teach STEM Concepts

Wikipedia defines XR or Extended Reality as a form of ‘mixed reality environment’ that combines ubiquitous sensors, networks, and shared online virtual worlds. It works on the premise of creating a virtual world – real or imaginary, allowing users to see it and interact with it. XR is an umbrella term for Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality, and Augmented Reality. Games like Pokémon Go, which hooked teenagers for hours, are remarkable examples of how immersive and intriguing XR can be. What if learning becomes so appealing for students? With its massive potential to kick-start a revolution in education, the realm of XR is truly worth exploring. 

Skills like analysis, critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity require abilities to understand abstract concepts and visualize those concepts in real-time scenarios. STEM education is now more critical than ever. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are necessary to solve complex problems such as increasing unemployment, decreasing freshwater resources, and global warming.

Technologies like virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality are the means to visualize abstract concepts and could help improve students’ learning outcomes in STEM subjects.

In an earlier article, using Dale’s Cone of Learning, we discussed how XR technologies are the right choice for activating multiple senses during a learning event. 

Possible applications of XR in STEM education

For a creative mind, the possibilities of applying XR in education are boundless. Regardless of the application, XR can immerse learners in a visceral learning environment that engages their senses and help focus attention on the learning material. From visualizing chemical reactions to experiencing the impact of climate change on wildlife, content delivered through XR technologies can immerse students in an experience that is not possible otherwise in a real-world setting.

Here are some possible experiences that one can think of:

  • Understanding the concept behind the simple harmonic motion with VR simulation could make it easier for students to describe, predict, and describe how objects would move under forces such as gravity or springs or magnets, etc.
  • Using MR to visualize chemical reactions process which will otherwise be not possible in a 2-dimensional approach.
  • Manufacturing and visualizing the complex geometrical shapes in 3D space that otherwise takes a lot of effort to visualize in 2D space.
  • Building structures using math equations without actually constructing them, saving time and cost.
  • Visualizing long mathematical proofs instead of reading them to learn how it was done.

The following case studies will be a worthwhile read on how XR technologies are used across diverse learning contexts:

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