Lisa Rebenitsch, Ph.D., Randy Hoover, Ph.D., and Strouse will receive $19,489 in Space Grant funding from NASA to study how virtual reality (VR) systems can support STEM education.

The faculty will examine four VR systems—including headsets with 3D tracked control—to better understand how VR systems can impact one’s learning experience.

In particular, the team will examine how VR systems can facilitate learning about topography, which supports NASA’s mission to better understand the earth.

“There is great potential for virtual reality systems to facilitate learning,” said Strouse. “Participants in our research will get a chance to walk around in a VR landscape using a 2D treadmill and grasp objects in a life-like way using hand tracking. We’ll be looking at whether these types of interactions are better for teaching students about topography than experiencing VR from a chair using a joystick.”

The researchers aim to determine whether 3D pointers, direct hand manipulation or traditional keyboard and mice are appropriate for a range of tasks. The tasks focus on critical needs of VR interfaces for educational applications such as numerical input, selection and placement of objects.

The research team also foresees this study providing insight into the cost-effectiveness of investing in VR/AR equipment for learning purposes, and they will examine the cost/benefit ratio of the developers’ effort and time to identify whether or not the learning gains justify the cost and programming time required.

In addition to furthering research, this study will provide opportunities for computer science students to gain hands-on experience with programming VR projects, and it will also contribute to a tradition of collaboration among schools in the region and the nation.

“With a combined skill set including mathematics and computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and human development and educational psychology, the multidisciplinary expertise of our research team will enable us to gain insight into the practical application of VR systems,” Strouse said. “We are grateful that the NASA South Dakota Space Grant Consortium is providing our schools with the opportunity to combine our respective areas of study to further STEM research.”

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