Students get ‘eyes-on’ learning experience

Paul Mayne // Western NewsBiology professor Paul Mensink has outfitted more than 200 students with virtual-reality headsets as an opportunity to immerse them into the learning process of his classes.

Paul Mensink would love nothing more than to take his class to the dump. Or anywhere, really, that could augment their learning about environmental sciences.

“The best thing is to take students to the field and show them a variety of things first-hand,” explained the Biology professor. “But with 200 students, that’s not possible. I also have a night class, so that’s definitely not possible.”

Now, Mensink is doing the next best thing – bringing the dump, along with countless other aspects of the environment, into the classroom through virtual-reality 3D headsets.

Thanks to an Innovation in Teaching grant, jointly sponsored by Centre for Teaching and Learning and Faculty of Science, Mensink outfit two classes – his first-year Environmental Science and Masters of Environment and Sustainability – with the headsets.

When students slide their cell phones into the lightweight plastic headsets, and press play on a series of pre-recorded videos, they are immediately immersed in a 360-degree, 3D view of wherever Mensink looks to take them – be it an aquaculture facility in New Brunswick or a landfill in London.

“This was an idea of how can we get students to see these things in action without having to drive them across the city or across the country,” he said.

Currently, there are few videos available online aligned with the course objectives. So, Mensink is in the process of building up his own library of content, often shooting the videos himself to bring back his first-hand experiences to his students.

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“Wherever I go, the students can go. Prior to this, we all simply looked at it together on the computer or on their phones. Now, they can look around wherever they want and control the learning themselves.”

Long term, he would like to give cameras to graduate students working in environmental sustainability to make additional videos. Even longer term, he would love to see a full VR suite on campus.

“We want to see if it makes a big difference when you have the VR sets when it comes to learning. Does it make it more immersing? We know VR can be entertaining. But does that transfer to better learning experience that is more engaging? Does that mean it’s easier to learn?”

Early feedback from his students have been positive.

“I could take straight photos and present them. But this particular 360-degree format allows the students to explore the sites themselves,” said Mensink, adding in the future students can even take the tours at home. “The ability for you to explore yourselves – it’s important for learning. You feel you are in that area and looking around.”