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Virtual reality takes hold of biology classes at Merced College

A student uses virtual reality to enter another universe: the Intergalactic Wildlife Federation.
Photo courtesy of Dreamscape Learn
A student uses virtual reality to enter another universe: the Intergalactic Wildlife Federation.

MERCED, Calif. – From the dense vegetation of a prehistoric jungle to the tough beige skin of a Brachiosaurus, starting this fall Merced College students can visualize science on a cinematic new level.

The college Thursday announced its partnership with educational VR company Dreamscape Learn, a collaboration that’s going to bring cutting-edge virtual reality technology into the classroom.

Developed at Arizona State University, the introductory courses feature visual storytelling and immersive experiences in place of traditional coursework. The goal is to use virtual reality tools that better prepare students for a rapidly-changing world where technology is constantly evolving.

Merced College officials like Garrick Grace, dean of innovation, say students will use the technology to investigate and solve scientific problems.

“We're starting with biology (classes), however, there's all sorts of other content that's already being created,” Grace said.

Enhanced tools for learning

Grace said the courses take place in the virtual world of “the Intergalactic Wildlife Federation, which is quite literally out of this world.”

The virtual problem-solving tools are expected to expand learning to more students across the board, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds.

College officials believe utilizing imaginary realities as learning tools can help students begin on equal footing from day one.

For instance, Grace said students who have family members that work in the biology field might typically come to class more equipped to absorb traditional classwork than others.

In a virtual world, however, all students begin class without preexisting knowledge of the material.

Dreamscape started its partnership with Arizona State in 2022. According to research conducted by the university, students who were enrolled in biology courses that used virtual reality were 1.7 times more likely to earn an “A” grade than their peers in regular biology courses.

The university also said by using the technology, academic gaps between different demographic groups were nearly eliminated. The university has enrolled more than 20,000 students in its introductory laboratory course since the VR program started.

Looking ahead to new virtual reality center

College officials say the courses will be offered in a new Virtual Reality Center. Grace said faculty are excited and prepared for the impact the future VR classes could have at Merced College.

Grace said the virtual reality classes are just the start of innovative approaches to education Merced College has in store. College officials say there will be more surprises laid out in the months to come.

“Higher education worldwide has been slower to adapt to ever-changing environments, but that doesn't have to be the way it is,” Grace said.

“At the end of the day, it's what our students are thriving for, striving for and trying to be a part of, and really that impacts our community as a community college.”

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.