Physics can be difficult to grasp–even for adults. So how do you teach the subject’s abstract ideas to middle schoolers?
Show some of the concepts in action. That’s the idea behind Peer, an experimental project from New York-based design firm Moment that uses mixed reality to teach middle schoolers scientific ideas such as aerodynamics, sound waves, gravity, and acceleration. The project, though purely conceptual, is a tantalizing hint at where technology in the classroom could be headed next.
A lesson in aerodynamics, for instance, would start when students strap on a VR headset, like Google Cardboard or Daydream. Their teacher could then demonstrate how aerodynamics works in mixed reality before the kids remove their headsets and get to work designing windmill arms, working with their hands to create something they think will generate the most wind speed. Then, on goes the headset again. As students begin testing their windmills with a fan, embedded sensors in the windmill spindle record rotational speed, and the headset shows the students the speed of their mills. The students could then optimize their windmill blades to generate more electricity, and group their mills together in order to “power” a small city that they could view in mixed reality. By observing what works and what doesn’t, the students could grasp some of the more abstract concepts around fluid dynamics.
This isn’t the only lesson the Peer team, composed of designers Andrea Everman, Sarah Mitrano, Ian Morrow, and Daniel Park, imagines–similar hardware could be used to test the acceleration of pinewood derby cars. Other lessons could use audio, light, temperature, and orientation sensors embedded in physical objects that connect to the Peer platform.
The prototype is based on research and feedback from educators at Blue School, a private elementary and middle school in Manhattan, and Beam Center, a camp and after-school program in Brooklyn. The team spoke with Rob Gilson, an educator at Blue School who focuses on developing STEAM education, a teaching philosophy in which students learn science and technology through the lens of engineering, math, and the arts. He warned them about blindly adding technology to the classroom, explaining that if he incorporates a fancy kit into a lesson on circuit-building, for instance, the students wouldn’t necessarily know how to build a circuit without the kit.
Peer’s design incorporated his feedback. Instead of trying to replace the teacher or the physical world, it’s meant to be a tool to help young students understand abstract science concepts in an engaging way–and one that doesn’t isolate from their classmates the way much technology does. The magic comes from working in the physical world with their hands while collaborating with their peers and teacher. The technology simply adds another dimension to aid in understanding.
“We wanted to find out whether VR could be useful in enhancing—rather than replacing—the existing educational environment, while augmenting the teacher’s abilities, rather than usurping them,” says John Payne, a managing director at Moment who oversaw the project. “VR is often simply reduced to a storytelling medium, but we believed it could be used in a more integrated way with the real-world environment, more as a ‘tool’ than as an ‘experience.'”
Could mixed reality be education’s next big tech tool, a follow-up to the iPads that infiltrated schools everywhere? The logic is compelling: Compared with virtual reality, which can have an isolating effect, and tablets, which can be black holes of distraction, mixed reality could potentially help kids learn in a nondisruptive way. Rather than replacing the world, it complements it. But mixed reality is still mostly in the experimental phase–Peer included. Though the Moment team is open to working with educators and other development partners to bring the idea to classrooms.
Perhaps one day every physics lesson will be taught with a headset.
[All Photos: courtesy Moment]