ASU researcher studies how virtual and augmented reality technologies improve STEM education

Imagine walking into your high school physics classroom only to be handed a surprise quiz on angular momentum. What if there was a more effective and engaging way to teach angular momentum so that the response to that pop quiz was not a groan?

What if instead of listening to a lecture describing how angular momentum is essentially how much a rotating object is moving, you could spin your arm during a motion-capture game to show you understand concepts related to angular momentum, like velocity and mechanical advantage?

Virtual and augmented reality technologies make it possible for students to learn about complex phenomena, like angular momentum or even electromagnetic waves, through partially or fully immersive experiences. Arizona State University’s Mina C. Johnson-Glenberg, a research professor in the Department of Psychology, is working to bring virtual reality (VR) into K-12 classrooms to promote STEM education. Johnson-Glenberg recently published a paper in Frontiers in Robotics and AI about design guidelines for including embodied movement, or movement that mirrors the content being taught, in 3D learning environments. She is also co-principal investigator on a recently funded National Science Foundation grant to study augmented reality (AR) on smartphones to learn about the electromagnetic waves that are emitted by everyday objects.

Entertaining and educational

VR and AR are primarily used for entertainment now, but these technologies can be useful for learning about complex or invisible phenomena.

“VR and AR are good for making the unseen be seen,” said Johnson-Glenberg.

The power of VR and AR for education is enhancing the learning environment with the goal of engaging students. With VR and AR, what a student sees and hears can be made more visceral and potentially more informative than listening to a lecture or even watching a video.

VR and AR also allow for movement and motion capture while learning, and Johnson-Glenberg’s research shows that when movement is congruent, or in synchrony, with the topic, it improves learning and retention. In other words, if a physics lesson on angular momentum uses an example of a virtual spinning front wheel of a bicycle, a student who moves his or her hand with the same velocity and is able to match certain targets by controlling the wheel will have a greater understanding of angular momentum and acceleration than a student who slides a knob back and forth to move a virtual wheel.

“Using virtual reality as a teaching tool is not about just using more of your body during learning,” Johnson-Glenberg said. “The gestures have to be appropriate for the topic and have to map onto what is being taught. Moving a slider to the right to show an increase in speed is less effective than spinning your arm faster.”

In most conventional classrooms, the information coming into the brain is visual and/or auditory. When movement is added to a lesson, the brain receives extra information, which can boost learning. This extra information is useful for learning only when the body’s motion is congruent, or similar to, the visual and auditory information. If a student is pushing a knob to move a bicycle wheel, that is a poor match to the rotational information associated with the visual and auditory information about angular momentum. VR/AR technology with congruent movement allows the information coming into the brain to include signals about the body’s motion that complement the visual and auditory information about angular momentum.

“The necessity of congruent gestures for using virtual reality in education falls out of the theory of embodied cognition,” Johnson-Glenberg said. “There are signals in the brain as a student learns new content, and when you add information from a congruent gesture in addition to the visual and auditory information, it strengthens the signals generated during learning and that can lead to faster learning or better retention.”

VR/AR at ASU and in the community

Johnson-Glenberg leads the Future of Education with VR and AR (FEVAR), a meetup group open to anyone at ASU interested in VR or AR. She is also affiliated with ASU’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology (CGEST) and recently wrote a blog post for the center describing a STEM curriculum based on the movie “Black Panther.” With CGEST, Johnson-Glenberg is also working on bringing VR/AR technology to the classrooms of a local high school that serves underprivileged students.

Beyond ASU, Johnson-Glenberg just started working with Girl Scouts in Arizona on developing a VR patch. She is also working with Mayo Clinic Hospital Arizona and the College of Nursing Health and Innovation to create gamified rehabilitation therapies using VR headsets.

Johnson-Glenberg’s ASU-spinoff company Embodied Games just released a free game that teaches Batesian mimicry, or when harmless animals end up resembling poisonous or dangerous animals for protection from predators. The game was designed to supplement the IMAX movie “Amazon Adventure” and has students using either AR or VR  nets to catch butterflies while learning about natural selection.

Because there are now several inexpensive VR/AR options available, Johnson-Glenberg believes schools should start implementing virtual and augmented reality technologies in the classroom.


“We need to keep engaging youth in science and technology,” Johnson-Glenberg said. “I am working hard to create educational content with VR and AR that draws kids to science and shows them how exciting and beautiful science is.”

Written by Kim D'Ardenne