Next best thing: Virtual reality aids learning in College of Ag Sciences classes

Amy Duke
March 08, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In early 2020, Adrian Barragan was wrestling with how to incorporate farm trips into the new spring course on ruminant herd health management he was leading at Penn State.

Aside from the usual logistical matters involved, the coronavirus had just breached the U.S., causing the assistant clinical professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences to reconsider the practicality of taking students off-campus.

That left him contemplating how he could replace on-the-farm experiences, which he felt were an important part of advancing students’ understanding of management practices for sheep and cattle.

The answer came by way of a happenstance encounter with a colleague in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Jaime García Prudencio, who is an assistant teaching professor for the Spanish for Agriculture program. A self-described “technology geek,” he had been dabbling in virtual learning to engage students in his undergraduate courses and to support Spanish-speaking clientele in Penn State Extension programs.

“I love technology — apps, web-based tools, robots, devices — I try them all,” García Prudencio said. “As part of the Penn State faculty, we have access to an incredible network of knowledge, talent, expertise and resources. I recognize the value of this privilege, and I contribute to it as well. My idea was — if the students can’t go to the farm, then we should bring the farm to the students.”

Immersive learning, he explained, is a teaching method that places students virtually in an interactive environment to gain exposure to a specific subject. It often incorporates 360-degree technology — video recordings where a view in every direction is recorded simultaneously — and virtual reality to simulate realistic scenarios and hands-on experiences. This technology has been available for many years for video gaming, but educators are now using it in the classroom.

Using a GoPro Fusion camera mounted on a headset, Barragan and García Prudencio recorded three 360-degree videos in the animal-housing areas of Penn State facilities and local farms. García Prudencio then edited the videos so they could be viewed on YouTube or with a virtual reality headset.

The idea was to have the students walk around an area as if they were there and practice concepts that they had learned in the lecture portion of the class related to positive and negative aspects of management practices, such as feed availability, pen cleanliness and animal-nutritional status.

Immersive tech photo

Students in a ruminant herd health management course watched 360-degree videos in the Immersive Experience Laboratory at Penn State in late February 2020. 

IMAGE: Adrian Barragan

The videos premiered in the Immersive Experience Laboratory at Penn State on Feb. 26, 2020, to rave reviews, noted Barragan. “The students were excited about the technology, with many saying they preferred it to a PowerPoint presentation, writing assignment or similar teaching tool,” he said. “We achieved the goal of providing the next best thing to being on the farm.”

Julia Hamilton, a junior majoring in veterinary and biomedical sciences, concurred. “While hands-on learning is extremely effective, it isn’t always possible, so immersive technology is a great alternative,” she said. “Rather than watching a standard video that only shows a section of the environment, the 360-degree videos allow us to experience the full environment as if we were there. It creates a fun learning experience.”

The project caught the attention of Justin Brown, assistant teaching professor in veterinary and biomedical sciences, who saw “enormous potential” for the use of 360-degree videos in wildlife education. One of the first ideas that came to mind was developing a 360-degree video on white-tailed deer anatomy for his comparative anatomy class.

“These videos can be shared easily and used for various classes and workshops,” Brown said. “The most important benefit, however, is that this technology provides access to purposeful learning when the real experience is not available for any reason, including availability of specimens and safety concerns.”

That noted, the educators conceded that hands-on activities are preferable to most people. “Though immersive learning will not completely replace those invaluable experiences, it can enhance them or provide a useful alternative when those experiences are not an option,” Barragan said.

However, navigating this new technology can be challenging, especially for newbies like Barragan, García Prudencio and Brown. To hone their skills and mine the knowledge of experts, such as Dan Getz, immersive experiences consultant, in April 2020 they applied — and were accepted — for a Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology fellowship. They also are pursuing grants for future projects and mentoring colleagues on immersive technology.

“Many of the modifications we have made as a result of the pandemic will be beneficial to life after COVID-19,” Brown said. “Within the field of education, many of the new methods being developed are not only improving the way we teach remotely in the present but will greatly enhance our ability to engage and educate students when we return to in-person classrooms.”

 

  • Student in immersive tech

    A student uses a virtual headset to tour a farm during a ruminant herd health management class in February 2020. 

    IMAGE: Adrian Barragan

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 08, 2021