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UMass Dartmouth Educators Build Virtual Reality City to Enhance Learning for Students and Researchers

An approximately $25,000 UMass Strategic Initiative Grant has Scott Ahrens, associate professor of design, constructing a virtual pre-Columbian site that arose in the second century (A.D.) on the UMass Dartmouth island in Second Life.

With the help of three UMass Dartmouth professors, students will explore the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan without the need for a passport or plane ride.

An approximately $25,000 UMass Strategic Initiative Grant has Scott Ahrens, associate professor of design, constructing a virtual pre-Columbian site that arose in the second century (A.D.) on the UMass Dartmouth island in Second Life.

"Our Teotihuacan project is the largest and most ambitious use of a MUVE (multi-user virtual environment) in the UMass system to date," Ahrens said, noting that UMass Boston is creating a virtual psychiatric clinic and other MUVES are becoming increasingly popular in the academic world such as Harvard's River City project and Vassar's Sistine Chapel.

The UMass Dartmouth project focuses on a recreation of the architectural monument, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, as well as a full-size replica of the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl for students to study and explore. The virtual space, with an expected completion date of February 1, 2009, will also include a Teotihuacan research facility with an interactive miniature scale model of the city showing its  development over the centuries; a teaching/presentation hall; and a museum of artifacts, created by students in Professor of Design Harvey Goldman's advanced 3-D modeling class.

"Today's students are multi-tasking, technically savvy, collaborative problem solvers who demand interaction and personalization to engage them in the classroom," Ahrens said. "Virtual Reality simulation offers them the multi-channel, situated learning experience that allows them to experiment, test their ideas, and assimilate knowledge for themselves."

This past summer, Ahrens, Goldman and Dr. Magali Carrera, professor of art history, who will teach a related course on ancient Mexico this year, traveled to Teotihuacan and had the opportunity to photograph the archeological treasures housed in Mexico City's  Museo de National de Antropologia. Students were given photographs of the objects believed to be from the site and created during the time periods that articulate Teotihuacan history. Goldman's class members who create successful representations of these artifacts will have them included in both a web site and the Second Life project.

"Giving the students the chance to work on a real world project is a great opportunity for them," Goldman said.

Added Carrera, "This is a research project that is testing MUVE as a learning environment to promote active, engaged and reflective learning."

Nicole Melo, a senior from Dartmouth, is working on a clay vessel with colored patterns on it that resembles a cup with three pronged feet on the bottom. She is excited to be participating in the project.

"Second Life is a great approach to learning because it's important to keep resources updated for students. We are living in a digital age and to not utilize a 3-D environment in order to have students explore and interact with learning would be a waste," Melo said. "This way, we'll have fun exploring and learning at the same time. The more exciting and interesting an educational medium seems, the more information the students will retain."

This fall, the virtual learning environment will be tested and assessed through Carrera's Art and Culture of Ancient Mexico course. In addition to asking participating students to reflect on their own learning, student work undertaken in the virtual environment will be compared with their peers who did not work in virtual Teotihuacan.

Ultimately, the site will be made available to teachers within the UMass system and around the world. The researchers also plan to offer presentations and collaborative design workshops to their colleagues who are experimenting with virtual reality and in need of expert advice.

A broader goal is to provide information to international researchers who are grappling with assessment of the potential and appropriateness of virtual learning environments. The project principals plan to write a scholarly article on their research results to be submitted to Educause and/or other digital media research journals.

"This new medium offers unprecedented opportunity to learn by doing within the directed environment of the classroom. It does not abandon traditional media, but rather builds upon and synthesizes it in new and exciting ways," Ahrens said.

Author:  "John Hoey"
Date:  29-Jan-2009
Department:   Art History / Design

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