Designing for real-world scientific inquiry in virtual environments

Diane Jass Ketelhut, Brian Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Background: Most policy doctrines promote the use of scientific inquiry in the K-12 classroom, but good inquiry is hard to implement, particularly for schools with fiscal and safety constraints and for teachers struggling with understanding how to do so. Purpose: In this paper, we present the design of a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) science curriculum project focusing on the creation of virtual experimentation methods and tools that concentrate on real-world inquiry. The study investigated whether students could engage with and learn as much from virtual inquiry as physical inquiry. Furthermore, the impact on teachers was explored. Programme description: These research questions were evaluated through an implementation of the MUVE, River City, a curriculum that is based on hypothesis formation and testing. Sample: We present findings from an implementation of River City with 500 seventh-grade students and their five teachers in a US mid-Atlantic suburban school district. Students were evenly split by gender and only a few were classified as low socio-economic status. Design and methods: Each teacher's classes were randomly assigned to physical or virtual experimentation interventions. Quantitative analysis using multi-level modelling was conducted on affective and content pre/post surveys, comparing results across treatments. Student and teacher comments were also investigated for their insight into the research questions. Results: Girls using virtual experimentation learn more than any other subgroup; however, boys in the physical experimentation group outperform their counterparts in the virtual group. All students were engaged by the virtual experimentation as indicated by survey and teacher reports. Teachers on average indicated a high level of satisfaction with their students' learning but indicated concern over the length of time needed. Conclusions: Initial evidence indicates that virtual experimentation can engage students and help them learn as well as or better than physical experimentation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)151-167
Number of pages17
JournalEducational Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2010


  • Scientific inquiry
  • Virtual environment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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