OSU physics researchers’ VR expertise is virtually unmatched

August 17, 2018
Chris Orban and Chris Porter with VR goggles

Having just finished his first year teaching introductory electromagnetism to OSU freshman, in summer 2015, Prof. Chris Orban purchased a $10 “Google Cardboard” headset and immediately realized the potential for smartphone-based virtual reality to revolutionize physics instruction. Prof. Orban eagerly shared the idea with Physics Education Research group postdoc Chris Porter and not long after that the BuckeyeVR project (http://buckeyevr.osu.edu) was born.

From the beginning, the goal has been not only to create physics-focused VR apps (currently the group has two free apps on the iOS and Android stores) but to use these resources to do cutting edge educational research.

“We knew it was just a matter of time before publishers would start creating their own VR apps for physics,” says Porter, “So we tried to focus on evaluating the efficacy of VR compared to other media like videos and still frame images.”

Besides the coding challenges of producing VR visualizations, the team had to create their own custom assessments for this task. “The traditional introductory physics curriculum is strongly shaped by what you can and can’t illustrate with a typical chalkboard” says Prof. Orban. “There was very little to draw from in finding questions that probed students’ ability to understand the intrinsically 3D nature of electric fields.”

In 2017, the group organized a study with the help of a couple grad students and one undergrad in the department in which 627 students taking Physics 1251 were shown visualizations of electric fields – some using smartphone-based VR – and asked their custom designed questions.

The results from this study were published in Smith et al. 2017 “A Controlled Study of Stereoscopic Virtual Reality in Freshman Electrostatics”  https://www.compadre.org/per/items/detail.cfm?ID=14650  The first author on the study is physics grad student Joseph R. Smith, who was also the lead programmer. Funds from OSU’s STEAM factory supported Joseph during the semester that the study took place.

The 627 student study is one of the largest VR studies ever conducted, and it is certainly the largest VR study in STEM education to date.

“It has been really satisfying to talk to other teams that have noticed our paper.” says Orban. “Some of our results have prompted other groups to think more carefully about students’ prior exposure to video games and how it may affect the way that they learn in a VR environment”.

Since 2017, Prof. Orban and Dr. Porter have begun collaborating with researchers in OSU’s math and engineering departments to examine student learning in VR. Students, teachers and the public can check out their free VR apps for physics and math by visiting http://buckeyevr.osu.edu   For more updates, follow them on twitter (@BuckeyeVR)

dipole screenshot

An example of a visualization used in the VR study - There is one image for each eye.