An Educational Virtual Reality Experience for Engaging Students of Color in Science Higher Education

A video of the VR experience being tried out by a VR professor at NYU at the IDM thesis show 2019

  • Work Type: Master's Thesis Project
  • Duration: 10 Months
  • Categories: Virtual RealityInteraction DesignUser Experience DesignAnimationProcess

The Problem

The problem I am trying to address is that there is a huge gender and diversity gap in STEM education which leads to biased products and services. While there are many reasons for this gap, such as socio-economic factors, the lack of relatable role models for students of color is a significant factor and I decided to focus on this problem.

To address this issue I decided to make a Virtual Reality experience to create awareness of the works of some real-life female scientists of color. Currently, my experience features one such real life scientist. Students will explore this scientist’s lab. They will learn about this scientist from her virtual avatar. They will travel to outer space to learn about her work which is studying black holes. Lastly, They will be tested on the knowledge they gain through a game-based activity.

Virtual Reality

I decided to use the medium of VR for my project, because it is immersive, interactive and therefore, enables powerful storytelling

VR is getting very popular in the field of education. For example, ClassVR is a standalone VR headset which comes with some pre-installed educational VR experiences. Current use of VR in education focus on VR’s ability to transport the users to another location, which they can then observe from up close. Some educational experiences that rely on this transportation function are Google Earth VR, Google Expeditions, Hoover Dam: Industrial VR and Masterworks: Journey through history.

My VR experience not only transports students to a lab environment and outer space but it also introduces them to a scientist. And it’s more interactive. I am also focusing on the underrepresented minority students which makes my experience different from other science based educational VR experiences

The Process

Above is a summary of the process I followed to create the VR piece. I used User Centered Design and Participatory Design methodologies to complete this project. I started with a storyboard and held interviews with some STEM education experts to talk about my project area which was problems in the current system of K-12 STEM education. Then I surveyed people about their attitude towards science. I made a paper prototype for my project idea and got some feedback from my peers and undergraduate students. I created two storyboards on two scientists and their work and got some middle school student’s feedback on which of the scientists' work they found more appealing. I created collage for the lab and used it to model the environment. I created a 3D model of the scientist. I held a co-design workshop with undergraduate students at NYU and got their feedback on my progress. I modeled the outer space environment. I created animations. I developed the first iteration of the experience which was the lab and outer space and got some feedback from VR experts and teachers. I developed second iteration which included the interactive activity. I held user testing sessions with middle school students and made observations as they tried out the experience. I also asked them to fill out a questionnaire to get some qualitative feedback on my project.

Technologies used:

  • Unreal Engine 4 for developing the VR experience
  • Maya for 3D modeling and animation.
  • Adobe Fuse for 3D modeling.
  • Mixamo for rigging and animation.
  • Spacescape to generate cube map for outer space.
  • Gimp for manipulating texture files.
  • The experience is optimized for Oculus Rift.

Prototyping - First Iteration

The first task was to model the lab environment. I used assets that are freely available online to fill in the furniture, equipment and other items within the lab. Then, I worked on the animations of the 3D character. Most of the audio for the experience is taken from Dr. Jedidah Isler’s TED talks. Some dialogues used for instruction were generated through Amazon Polly. Next I worked on modeling the outer space environment and added animations. This completed the first prototype for my experience.

Below are some clips from the first iteration combined together to give an idea of what the first prototype was like. Please note that this is only a screen recording of the experience as previewed on a laptop through Unreal Engine Editor. Please excuse the sound quality which was affected due to the screen recording that picked up my laptop's fan noise.

Feedback - First Iteration

I received some feedback for this prototype by showing this to some experts in VR and teachers. A positive comment I received was that they liked that I included animations and audio narration by the scientist. Another suggestion was to make the lecture on black holes more interesting by adding more visuals and animations. A teacher suggested that I add text on the screen. A VR expert suggested that I should add some directions for first time VR users to show them how to teleport in VR and interact with the objects

Prototyping - Second Iteration

In the second iteration of my VR experience I incorporated most of these suggestions given by VR experts and science teachers. So I added some text, more visuals and some instructions on how to use the controllers.

Below are some clips from the second iteration combined together to give an idea of what the second prototype was like. Please note that this is only a screen recording of the experience as previewed on a laptop through Unreal Engine Editor. Please excuse the sound quality which was affected due to the screen recording that picked up my laptop's fan noise.

I also added the interactive activity in the second iteration. Below is a clip of this activity. I recorded the computer screen as I tried out the experience in VR through Unreal Engine. Please excuse the choppy video quality which is due to my computer's limited processing power.

User Testing

I held three user testing sessions to test the second iteration of my experience with some middle school students. One of the user testing sessions took place at NYU's campus, another one was held at a middle school and the third one was held at a friend’s place. All of these sessions were held under the supervision of a teacher or parents.

After the experience I asked them to fill out a questionnaire which had eight open-ended questions. Some of these were:
1. In your opinion what was the purpose of this experience? 2. What did you like about the experience and why? 3. What did you not like about it and why?
I got a total of 12 middle school students’ responses. five were girls and seven were boys. The ethnic/racial composition of the participants included hispanic, african american, asian and white.

42% Students understood the purpose of my experience. Overall the students mentioned learning about the black hole and science more than learning about the female scientist of color however, many still brought her up on a number of occasions. They all enjoyed the experience especially interacting with objects, and experiencing different worlds such as the outer space. All but one student had positive responses to the experience. Most Students thought that it was ‘interesting and fun’. One student wrote ‘My experience of trying this out is mind blowing because it is my first time ever trying it out and it teaches very well.’

However, Some students mentioned that they could not hear the scientist properly and some asked me to make the scientist interact with them more.


So to sum up, As far as providing a role model of color through Virtual reality is concerned, there is certainly potential for this, but it needs more investigation and user testing. My research shows that there were only a few students who picked up on the racial theme of the experience.

The second part of my study which was to see if VR can teach science in an engaging way was affirmed. The students found Virtual Reality to be a good medium for learning science because they had more fun as opposed to learning in a traditional classroom setting. Especially the interactive activity showed how much students were engaged in the VR environment because they spent a long time on this.

Future Perspectives

In future, I will extend the project to feature more scientists of color. I will contact Dr. Isler who is the scientist featured in my project and ask if she would like to collaborate with me. I will focus on establishing a mentor-mentee relationship by involving the scientists in the development of the experience.

Additionally, I will work on optimizing my project for low end VR devices such as google cardboard and Oculus Quest so that it is accessible to more people.

If you would like to learn more about the project, please see the links below:

Thesis documentation website: Moeezo's Thesis Website

Link to thesis show presentation: IDM Thesis show 2019 Presentation Deck

Thesis Paper: Moeezo Saleem Masters Thesis Paper