NASA STEM Challenge for Grades 9-12 InWorld

A competition from NASA provides a challenge for High school students, in 2 phases. In phase 1 students have an opportunity to work cooperatively, in teams of three-to-five students, as engineers and scientists to solve real-world problems related to the James Webb Space Telescope. Final solutions from this first phase of the challenge are due on Dec. 15, 2010.

Teams who complete Phase 1 are then paired with participating college engineering students for Phase 2, the InWorld phase of the challenge. Each InWorld team will refine designs and create 3-D models of the Webb telescope.

For more information about the challenge, visit

Culture and Foreign Language, Virtually

Learning of foreign languages can be somewhat of a challenge in the United States, partially due to proximity to countries where another language is spoken, yet global perspectives are essential and better  addressed through a multi-lingual  and multi-cultural citizenry.  “According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a higher percentage of students are studying a foreign language than at any time in history.”  The Case for Foreign language Classes Education Week ( July 12, 2010).  Students need to become prepared to conduct business and compete in a global economy, our competitors across the globe are addressing it.

Foreign language instruction is an area that can be handled effectively through virtual environment experiences.  Foreign language teachers will tell you that practice in the native tongue with native speakers is a “best practice”.  In real life it often includes field trips, at the very least to a local restaurant or community,  students from affluent homes may participate in a trip abroad.

In a virtual environment, students can be placed in a variety of social situations, with native speakers, to practice newly acquired linguistic skills. There are instant translators available in virtual worlds that can translate written text to a limited degree, and/or students may turn on voice and actually practice speaking with individuals from another country.   Environments can be constructed to elicit the practice of particular vocabulary such as sporting, arts, cultural, or social events.  Students (through avatars) engaged in conversation and interaction will naturally acquire cultural lessons as well.

ESOL students could use the environment similarly.  A characteristic that encourages language practice for the second language learner is the ‘security’ of the avatar.  Students learning a foreign language may express a reluctance to speak, for fear of being made fun of.  An avatar representation offers some shielding from potential or perceived ridicule.

A virtual setting may very well be the most ‘natural’ setting we can provide, at a reasonable cost, for foreign language instruction.

Visual Arts in The Virtual World

The virtual world is of course a visual art in and of itself, but there is potential to provide learning experiences in a virtual setting that would otherwise be impossible in the real world.  In my experience, the world of visual arts can be brought to students to consume in 4 ways.

First the traditional way of walking around a museum and looking at the art.  One of the most extensive museums in the virtual world that I have seen is the Dresden Museum on Second Life (Dresden Gallery 120,128,26), which houses 750 masterpieces of European art.  An avatar can walk around the museum  and see the famous art, clicking on it to get information as it is desired. This method of learning about the art mimics a strategy used in the real world.

An avatar floats down Rumsey's Map Museum tower

The second method takes the display and viewing of works to a different level, literally.  Here an avatar can view a large collection of artwork in a “museum”  that can be traversed only in a virtual setting.  A wonderful example of this is the Rumsey Map Museum on Second Life ( Rumsey Maps 2 (193,201,715)).  The avatar visiting this museum  can fly through a tower to view the extensive map collection, stopping to click on any of interest to get additional information.

The third method of  learning about art in a virtual setting involves becoming a part of the art.  Art Box (Klaw 5,21,46) on Second Life has selected pieces of artwork with human subjects.

An avatar becomes a part of a famous piece of art in Art Box.

Participants are provided an opportunity to choose a painting and then click on a poseball to become the subject in the art.  The owners offer props and costumes for some of the art work.  Laguna Beach California has a real life, annual art show reminiscent of this strategy of enjoying art.  Actors dress and pose while backdrops and lighting are used to duplicate a painting in real life.   In the virtual setting the participant gets to make the art selection and become a part of it.  Certainly more immersive than just looking at it.

Sitting in Van Gogh's room. The builder created an elongated room to ensure groups of visitors had a correct view.

Finally, an avatar can visit a location and be completely immersed in the art.  In the case of Arles (168,23,29) on Second Life.  This amazing sim allows avatars to walk around Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings as they may have been seen by the artist.  The paintings are a 3D form and allow complete interaction.  An avatar can climb one of the famous yellow haystacks, sit in a cafe and enjoy the “starry night”, or even sit in Van Gogh’s bedroom.

The many museums in the virtual environment  each have policies regarding the use of the images they display.  It is best to experience them by visiting the location.

The places described here are not available to students under 18 years of age, but the methods may be used to create art locations in the Opensim grids so that students may interact with art and thus learn about it.  Better yet, students may become the producers and create these environments with art work in the public domain or even their own art work.

Learning Spaces

Listening to A Lecture

I attended the Second Life ISTE speaker series June 1st, regarding learning spaces.  The speaker categorized learning spaces as formal, informal and virtual.  This would seem to indicate that Virtual World spaces are only virtual, but that is not the case.  The virtual environment contains formal and informal spaces within its’ ‘virtualness’.  Perhaps it is more what you do with the spaces than what they are or what they look like.

A traditional classroom is a formal space, yet teachers often manage those spaces in ways that engage students in untraditional ways.  A teacher in a classroom with desks, even desks in rows, can engage students in an informal, non-didactic way ( though a different setting may be more amenable to this).

During the ISTE Virtual session, the avatars all sat in an auditorium and the setting was certainly visually formal, yet it was virtual space.  The speaker did not talk-at, lecture non-stop or read from 30 powerpoint slides.  The speaker engaged the group by asking very pointed questions and then responded to the chatter in local chat.  Participants also “talked” among themselves without disturbing the group, so there was an informalness to the presentation despite the visually formal setting.  This strategy would not work as well in a face-to-face formal setting because of sound/noise. The ability to discern salient comments would be impossible.

Organization of visual space, virtual or real, certainly contributes to how the space is used, but it does not need to dictate the way the space is used.  A skilled teacher will be able to conduct learning experiences that are effective and can usually adjust in spite of the setting.   An exception would obviously be a lab or studio requiring specialized equipment.  In planning for the teaching and learning that will take place in any space the instructor must consider the content, objectives, target audience and learning styles.

Floating in space