Merced County Times Newspaper
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Virtual reality class experience coming to Merced College


Merced College will venture into new high-tech territory this coming fall as it works to combine existing curriculum with Dreamscape Learn, a cutting-edge virtual reality learning experience.

“We are committed to enhancing the learning journey by integrating innovative methods that make education more engaging and impactful,” said Chris Vitelli, president of Merced College. “This partnership marks a significant milestone in our mission to elevate educational standards and leadership within our community. Furthermore, it represents a proactive step toward bridging the educational divide, ensuring that students from underrepresented backgrounds have equal access to cutting-edge resources and opportunities, thus fostering equity in every aspect of our educational approach.”
Dreamscape Learn was developed through a partnership between Arizona State University (ASU) and Walter Parkes, screenwriter and co-founder of DreamWorks Motion Pictures. Research at ASU found the virtual reality approach, which combines experiential learning, cinematic storytelling, and immersive technologies, to dramatically enhance student engagement and improves learning outcomes.
”Merced College is embracing new modalities of education to meet the needs of our students and create engaging learning experiences,” said Garrick Grace, MC’s dean of Innovation. “Our faculty members are currently working on implementing the curriculum for a successful Fall 2024 launch. We will continue to embrace innovation at Merced College and look forward to a successful rollout this fall.”
Since Dreamscape Learn’s inception in 2022, more than 20,000 ASU students have engaged with the introductory biology laboratory course. ASU research found students demonstrated improvements in student performance in biology courses enhanced with VR technology.

Students were 1.7 times as likely to earn an A grade in their assignments compared to their counterparts in traditional laboratory settings. The large achievement gaps that existed in the traditional program between lowest and highest performing demographic groups were nearly eliminated. Based on these outcomes, ASU has replaced all traditional intro biology labs with Dreamscape Learn’s Immersive Biology in the Alien Zoo.

The Times was able to get in touch with Merced College Biology Professor Torey Arnold who is excited about the new VR possibilities for local students.

“When I tell people that we are getting a VR setup at the college,” he said, “they assume something like we’re going to be doing dissections or virtual experiments inside of VR. However, what I’m most excited for is that it is an emotional hook for the students so that they will be able to tie concepts from biology and map them onto characters and a story that they are emotionally invested in. I’ve never had that experience in a biology class, and I don’t think really anybody ever has until this. To be invested in biological concepts because of a story with characters in it that are meaningful to the player/students. I think that is the real value here to have a story-driven scientific course.

“For example, when students are learning about ecology, they’ll be emotionally invested in the characters and won’t want to ‘lose’ them, and so they’ll be invested in the changes they’re making in the data to avoid those results—and that’s just one example.

“You know, to be able to have character arcs, twists, and impacts from data that they’re analyzing in the lab feeding back into the story and the characters that they care about, I think that’s the real value of what this is, and that’s why I’m excited about it. To me, it’s something completely new and our students here at Merced College, I think, are really going love it, and hopefully we’ll make a few scientists, nurses, and doctors along the way.”
Summer White, who teaches biology and anatomy at Merced College, agrees.

“Imagine taking a class where you are surrounded by the environment of which you are studying,” she told the Times. “For example, if you were a student, you could hear lecture in the oval office, or maybe find yourself in an ancient colosseum to study architecture, or as a biology or nursing student you could be fully immersed in a trip through a cell or the heart of an organism. Virtual reality can transport students to many places that it might be otherwise impossible for them to go.Virtual reality also has the potential to foster student investment into their course by allowing them a story to follow along with and play a role in. This gives them a sense of purpose to learn the concepts in the course. During the story they will collect data, analyze data and make changes for the living organisms in their story. They can compare what they learn from the characters in the story to the biological concepts they learn about throughout the course. This type of learning fosters so many learning styles and creates a newness of exploration that is different from any class they, or I, have ever taken before.”

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