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NSF grant funds study of ways seventh graders learn in a virtual world setting

BOONE—Today’s school students have never known a world without technology. From surfing the ’Net to playing virtual world simulations, they turn to computers and the Internet for recreational, social and educational activities.

Educators at Appalachian State University plan to explore the ways middle school students engage in learning in a virtual world setting. They have received a National Science Foundation grant totaling $470,613 to help students and their teachers create computerized 3D virtual worlds in which they will explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

An additional $1 million in funding is possible, pending the results of the first year of the project.

The grant grew from a pilot project between Appalachian’s Reich College of Education and a Davie County middle school. Students created and used a virtual world setting to study explorers and exploration.

“We wanted to see how students would use 3D virtual world technology in terms of learning,” said Nita Matzen, an assistant professor in Appalachian’s Department of Leadership and Educational Studies. She co-authored the grant for the project.

“The students were more engaged and more focused with their learning,” Matzen said. “The project also facilitated a shift from individual to more collaborative learning.”

Many of the master’s degree program areas in the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies at Appalachian use virtual world settings for instruction, such as library science, instructional technology, masters in school administration, and higher education. The doctoral program in educational leadership also uses the virtual world. The three-dimensional web-based learning environment known as Appalachian Educational Technology Zone (AET Zone) allows graduate students to collaborate on projects and meet for group discussions in real time, no matter their location.

“The virtual world technology provides a way for people to form a community even though they may be dispersed,” said Dick Riedl, a professor in the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies and grant co-author.

Virtual worlds have buildings, walkways, libraries and classrooms. A student creates an online figure called an avatar that can maneuver through the virtual world environment, access information in the library, or chat with others via e-mail or through a microphone using Voice-Over-Internet Protocol technology. “It can provide a very rich environment for people to explore,” Riedl said

“The grant provides support for teacher and student summer workshops on campus at which time student representatives from the four participating schools from Davie and Catawba counties will learn 3D modeling,” Matzen said. “The school teachers will join the students to begin creating a virtual world based on a real-world problem. The students will be the technical experts and the teachers will be the pedagogical experts as the implement the technology into the curriculum.”

The students and teachers will share their skills with other teachers and students in their respective schools. “Probably every seventh-grade student in each of the participating schools will ultimately be involved in the project,” Matzen said.

The grant also will fund a 3D modeler who will work with students and teachers at the schools, and a program manager who will work with the schools and handle day-to-day questions and instructional issues, and help plan summer workshops and a final conference.

Other partners in the project are Appalachian’s Math and Science Education Center and the
N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, which has environmental education
materials that align with the state’s standard course of study. Qwaq Forums ( is the 3D environment that will be used and was also a participant in supporting the grant proposal.

Clemson University in South Carolina is also a grant partner through the Carolinas Virtual World Consortium, which was initiated between Appalachian, and Clemson a year ago. Clemson and will hold similar workshops and work with schools in Pickens and Oconee counties.

Follow-up sessions will be held with the teachers during the school year, some of which will be face-to-face meetings and some through the virtual world setting, Matzen said.

Educators hope using a virtual world setting to teach science and technology will encourage students to pursue careers in these fields. “They grew up with this technology,” Matzen said. They really don’t know the world any other way.”