Research

A video of the computer game, The Virtual Trillium Trail, 2009.

The Virtual Trillium Trail Research Project, (2003-2008) (PDF):

The Virtual Trillium Trail research project set out to build a realistic educational simulation of elementary school environmental science curriculum and real world field trips. It was an investigation into the design, construction, testing, and evaluation of the child-computer environment interface and the simulation. The research focused on the ethnographic design and empirical investigation into the design parameters that affect learning activity, knowledge acquisition, creativity, and emotional outcomes.

The project collaborated with Gabi Hughes, Environmental Educator,Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, who coordinates the Fox Chapel Area School District environmental science education program. Teachers, especially Beth Durbin, from the Fox Chapel Area School District, were instrumental and supportive. Volunteer third, fourth, and fifth grade students from the greater Pittsburgh area participated in the research. In addition, Professor Susan Kalisz, Department of Biological Sciences, at the University of Pittsburgh, and senior research associate Jessica Dunn, collaborated and provided the plant population data sets required to build the visualization of the park. The Virtual Trillium Trail is a unique data simulation and visualization of Dr. Kalisz’s long-term NSF biological plot study data, unlike any other virtual world for education. Furthermore, the location of the Trillium Trail Wildflower Reserve is the site for many science and ecology elementary school field trips, created and lead by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. The combination of the biological data and the proven educational approaches (from 1968, Beulah Frey, Ruth Scott and Ruth Boyles) offered an ideal and successful real world learning experience to model and to base a computer simulation for research on the usability of virtual worlds and to better understand patterns of intrinsic learning found in informal settings.

Virtual Trillium Trail Images shows the real and virtual field trips. Top images of activity in the real Trillium Trail, and bottom images of the software deployed in a computer lab at the University of Pittsburgh with The Virtual Trillium Trail, 2007. HarringtonFigure 1: Images shows the real and virtual field trips. Top images of activity in the real Trillium Trail, and bottom images of the software deployed in a computer lab at the University of Pittsburgh with The Virtual Trillium Trail, 2007.

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Figure 2. The data for Knowledge Gained in one hour of independent play.

  • Navigational Freedom shows Trend: F(1,60) = 2.71, p = 0.105
  • Visual Fidelity is Strong and Significant: F(1,60) = 10.54, p = 0.0019
  • Significant Evidence of Interaction: F(1,60) = 4.85, p = 0.0315
  • Highest Gains in Condition of High Visual Fidelity and High Navigational Freedom: M=37.44, SD = 13.88

 

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Figure 3.  The data for Salient Events in one hour of independent play.

  • Navigational Freedom shows strong Trend: F(1,60) = 3.23, p = 0.0773
  • Visual Fidelity is Strong and Significant: F(1,60) = 4.35, p = 0.00413
  • No Interaction: F(1,60) = 1.48, p = 0.2285
  • Highest Counts: Condition of High Visual Fidelity and High Navigational Freedom: (M=16.75, SD = 6.27)

 

Important Findings and Results:

Reality Matters: Comparison of Real and Virtual Learning Environments: Ethnographic and empirical evidence prove the transfer of knowledge from Real to Virtual and Virtual to Real, thus demonstrating how to use virtual environments for priming, transfer, and reinforcement for maximum learning gain: indicating the Virtual-Real-Virtual order is the best practice. I proved the Real Environment is superior to the Virtual Environment for learning activity, and when the virtual is identical to and compared to the subset of the real, learning activity outcomes are the same (i.e. for real world data, real is superior, but for plant only data, they are identical).

Gender Differences in Information Seeking and Learning Behavior of Young Children in Virtual Learning Environments: I showed that boys and girls learn differently in their information seeking behavior and activity, and discovered one gender-neutral learning profile that is highly effective, and its implications for both software design choices and teaching methods; Girls benefit from High Visual Fidelity but they are penalized by Low Visual Fidelity interfaces.

Freedom and Fidelity as Design Factors: With The Virtual Trillium Trail (POC and 2x2 ANOVA), I proved that the factor of Visual Fidelity is a strong and significant design element to increase intrinsically motivated learning activity. The data show that the High Visual Fidelity condition (Row Mean = 14.46, SD = 6) resulted in significant and greater impact on Salient Event counts than did the Low Visual Fidelity condition (Row Mean=11.31, SD = 6.37), and Visual Fidelity is Strong and Significant: F(1,60)= 4.35, p = 0.00413, with No Interaction: F(1,60) = 1.48, p = 0.2285. In other words, information-seeking behavior, from exploration-mode to inquiry-mode, significantly increases by the use of photo realistic images in high fidelity virtual environments. The more a virtual reality environment, simulation, or serious game looks high fidelity and photo realistic, the more times a child’s behavior will change from exploration to inquiry, thus visual fidelity increases a child’s desire to learn, to understand, to stop and independently and actively inquire. I showed that a design choice, High Visual Fidelity, has the strongest impact on this change of information seeking behavior, indicative of a desire to learn, or curiosity in action. Visual Fidelity is a powerful, significant, and independent factor affecting Salient Events. Additionally, Salient Events are significantly higher in the High Fidelity x High Navigation condition (cell mean =16.75, SD = 6.27) when compared to the Low Fidelity x Low Navigation condition (cell mean = 10.87, SD = 5.91) and in an unpaired t-test (t = 2.7297, p = 0.0105) the results appear strong and significant. High Fidelity and High Navigation increase Salient Events, (shows a very strong trend at p = 0.05, or is significant at a p value of 0.10), and are thus critical design features for educational virtual environments, especially since Salient Events are moderately positively correlated with Knowledge Gained (rho = 0.455, p =0.000) in the SEEE Model.

Relating the exploration and inquiry information seeking behavior to learning outcomes, I looked at the output variable, Knowledge Gained. Again in the 2x2 ANOVA, Visual Fidelity is strong and significant, F(1,60) = 10.54, p = 0.0019. Additionally, Knowledge Gained is significantly higher in the High Fidelity x High Navigation condition (cell mean = 37.44, SD = 13.88) when compared to the Low Fidelity x Low Navigation condition (cell mean = 20.93, SD = 13.36) and in an unpaired t-test (t = 3.4280, p = 0.0018) the results appear strong and significant. However, in the 2x2 ANOVA, there is significant evidence of interaction: F(1,60) = 4.85, p = 0.0315, so more work must be done to fully understand this interaction.

Results Published In:

Press:

>> Read about it in, Remake Learning, (managed by the staff of The Sprout Fund,) "The Virtual Trillium Trail Explore a virtual forest to learn more about the natural world"

>> Read the Spring 2012 Pitt Magazine Article about The Virtual Trillium Trail.

>> Read about the Pop City Innovation, Wednesday, August 01, 2012 Article about The Virtual Trillium Trail used in schools. "Fox Chapel students hike the Trillium Trail virtually and in person,"

The Virtual Trillium Trail Computer Game. Between 2009 and 2012 the research was redeveloped for market by Virtual Field Trips, LLC.

Virtual Field Trips, LLC., specializes in the design, production and publication of educational software simulations used by children for exploration, discovery, and intrinsic learning. Buy the software now>>

The Virtual Trillium Trail is a realistic educational simulation of the North American Forest built on high-end, photo realistic, computer game technology and used as a virtual field trip to enhance real world field trips. Ideally used both before and after a trip to any deciduous parkland, it more than doubles learning gains, in it children can explore a virtual forest to learn more about the natural world.

It was created to be a high fidelity, 3D, interactive, educational computer game as a scientific visualization of a real park, for exploration, discovery and learning. Children may choose a hawk or deer avatar to become, then immersed in imaginary play, explore the forest and learn. Learning becomes intrinsically rewarding, thus providing motivation to play without money or points. This platform offers a natural, spontaneous and emergent gameplay experience that ignites imagination, results in learning, and can be used by parents, teachers, and educators to support real world activities, not replace them.

Children who played this game were inspired to create their own scientifically accurate virtual forests. Playing this game supports scientific inquiry and creativity, inspiring children to, “learn to create and create to learn.” Playing this game promotes a sense of awe and wonder, curiosity, beauty, and a desire to share, thus supporting a child’s connection with nature and in becoming environmental stewards.