As both the price and the content for virtual reality systems improve, more and more schools are embracing the technology that gives students a chance to take "virtual" field trips to destinations that wouldn’t otherwise be likely due to limits on time, staffing and budgets.
With virtual reality technology in the classroom, students can be transported to destinations such as an operating room where they can observe medical operations. The technology can also transport students underwater to explore seal life or into the human circulatory system to see how it operates up close.
"It instantly grabs the students," said Colin Jones, a science teacher at Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District, who has had students use virtual reality to dissect cells with a system called zSpace.
"It's something that can be done in a period or two," he said, "when it could take even a week sometimes when you're doing a lab."
According to Richard Lamb from the University at Buffalo Neurocognition Science Lab, virtual reality can also physically impact the user in much the same way that a "real" experience might.
"Some of the research we're doing has actually shown that what you experience in virtual reality has very similar, if not the same, physiological responses that you would get if you were doing the actual activity," Lamb said. "Heart rate, cognition, breathing, everything."
Not yet a fixture in most classrooms, experts believe that the technology will soon become a valuable classroom tool once issues such as cost and education requirements are met.
"Too often in schools, when we do things with laboratories, it's...you mix this together, you mix that together and you get this outcome. And if you don't get that outcome, you did something wrong, but we don't have enough resources for you to redo it," he said. In virtual reality, "all I do is hit reset on the computer. I don't have to actually use chemicals."
Yet, while experts realize the value in offering such experiences to students, they also recognize the importance in real-world experiences.
"We have to remain anchored in the actual world," cautioned David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, "because that's the one that we really need to explain."