Mixed-reality environments combine physical and virtual worlds. Mixed-reality systems can be useful instructional tools that combine the power of computers with the complexity of the physical world. These systems take advantage of the power of computers for prediction, simulation, and measurement but also ground activities in the “messiness” of the physical world.

Mixed Reality in STEM Education

Mixed reality can be ideal for classroom activities that integrate science and engineering. The Concord Consortium’s Mixed Reality Lab (concord.org/projects/mixed-reality-labs), led by Charles Xie, outlines the rationale for mixed-reality environments:

•    Hands-on labs provide rich context and multisensory experiences but often fail
to reveal the underlying concepts clearly.
•    Virtual labs help focus student attention on the concepts through visual, interactive simulations but often lack a sense of reality.
•    By combining these two types of learning into mixed-reality experiences, the advantages of both should increase learning.

The concept of computers interacting with the physical world is not new. In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published a landmark paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer,” recommending that computers in schools take advantage of the same affordances computers offer science and engineering. They noted:

In the real world computers are used in many different ways. Some are programmed to fly airplanes; not to tell a human pilot what to do, but to pull the levers with their own electronic-mechanical effectuators and to read the altitudes and airspeeds with electronic sensing devices. … Some computers are programmed to control lathes and milling machines in industrial plants… .

These suggestions foreshadow advances in fields of engineering, such as mechatronics involving the widespread use of computer-controlled “effectuators,” as Papert calls them, and rapid prototyping through 3D printers and digital fabrication systems. Papert envisioned that educators would connect computers to the physical world and use them to explore the physics principles embodied in simple toys.

Exploring Waves with Pendulums
In 2009, Vadas Gintautas and Alfred Hübler devised an inexpensive electronic pendulum constructed from a computer mouse, facilitating exploration with a device that teachers can make for less than $5. You can access construction plans and software, provided as supplements to an article they published in Physics Education, at iopscience.iop.org/0031-9120/44/5/006.

We extended the concept to record the motion of the mouse pendulum on an electronic strip chart on a computer screen. But before introducing this mixed-reality pendulum, we led a playground activity in which paint flowing from a hole in the bottom of a swinging bucket creates a sine wave on a strip of craft paper. This simple activity is inexpensive, requiring only a surplus paint bucket, and does not require any electronic technologies. It serves as a scaffold to anchor more advanced explorations that combine the computer with the physical world.

We used an inexpensive solenoid to activate a pendulum, allowing students to determine the optimal rate to feed energy into the system. This can facilitate exploration of concepts such as resonance and phase relationships.

Once students understand that a simple repeating motion can generate a waveform in this physical activity, a mixed-reality activity can extend the concept. Mouse pendulums are inexpensive enough to allow each child to have more time exploring periodic motion.

Controlling the Physical World
Papert envisioned that computers could control actions in the physical world as well as record them, suggesting that a linear actuator could act as a pusher to feed energy into a system.

Enabling the computer to control inputs to the system as well as record outputs lets students view changes from a systemic perspective, adjusting variables and observing outcomes.

Students can also use the understanding of these concepts and relationships as the basis for constructing a speaker using card stock, magnet, and wire. The students create the speaker cone and base from card stock. A coil of wire at the base of the speaker cone generates a magnetic field that moves the speaker coil (and the speaker cone attached to it), causing the speaker to vibrate. The students then compare the acoustic characteristics of the speakers they designed and constructed with the characteristics of commercial speakers and use their analyses as the basis for revision of their designs. This provides a real-world context for applying the concepts they have learned.

You can access the mouse pendulum, paint bucket pendulum, and paper speaker activities at wise.maketolearn.org.

Learning Science from Engineering
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) call for a commitment to “fully integrating engineering and technology into the structure of science education by raising engineering design to the same level as scientific inquiry in classroom instruction” (www.nextgenscience.org). Mixed-reality projects can provide a foundation for this, combining computer simulations and controls with real-world applications in the same manner as actual science and engineering.

Thanks to advances in technology, the cost of such activities has dropped dramatically. The barrier to applying science in the context of engineering design is now expertise, because science teachers often have a limited background in engineering design.

As the NGSS framework notes, engineering is a distinct field with its own goals, practices, and core concepts. However, collaboration across disciplines can make it possible for students to learn science in the context of engineering design. Students can deepen their understanding of science while applying what they learn in their everyday lives, and this benefits science teachers, technology educators, and the students that they teach.

The activities described are based in part on work supported by the National Science Foundation (nsf.gov). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

—Glen Bull (gbull@virginia.edu) is co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, USA. Bull co-authored this column with Eric Bredder (bredder@virginia.edu), a technology educator; Nigel Standish (nigelstandish@virginia.edu), a secondary science teacher; and Peter Malcolm (p.malcolm@virginia.edu), a computer scientist. Bredder, Standish, and Malcolm are graduate fellows in the Center for Technology and Teacher Education.