5 Teams Changing Career Education: Meet Smart Sparrow

This post is the fifth of a special “5 Teams Changing Career Education” series, featuring Q&A with the EdSim Challenge finalists. These solutions demonstrate the exciting potential for an ecosystem of next-generation simulations to strengthen in-demand career skills.  

Our last post features a Q&A with Jacqui Hayes, Director of Inspark Courseware Production at Smart Sparrow and David Sarno, Founder and President of Lighthaus. They developed LifeCraft which explores the story of life on Earth with VR voyages through biology, archaeology, astronomy, and beyond.

How will your concept help students prepare for future careers?

Jacqui: When we develop science courseware, we focus on developing experiences that teach (and assess) critical thinking skills. These skills in observations, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation are important to many career paths.

David: Many careers paths have a deep component of observing and interacting with your immediate environment: nursing, farming, architecture and construction, or being a biologist or a chemist. Being able to create lifelike environments and simulate real situations is one of the VR’s great promises. We’re starting with biology — allowing students to observe and take control of a microscopic animal cell. But later we’ll expand this approach — explore, observe and interact — to many other fields.

What’s the biggest insight you’ve uncovered through the Challenge so far?

Jacqui: The gimmick trap is exactly what we want to avoid – we’re very interested in seeing how VR in the classroom can meaningfully improve learning outcomes for students. I suspect that at first we will see an increase in learning outcomes, but it won’t necessarily be because the learning experience is better in VR. Instead, there’s something called the Novelty Effect, where you can see an improvement in learning outcomes by changing something not relevant to what is being taught – for example, if the teacher wears a hat, paints a wall in the classroom red, or flicks a light switch in the middle of a lesson. So, our idea from the beginning has been to make a series of small VR experiences that integrate into a course in a meaningful way that gets beyond the Novelty Effect. And it was great to hear that assumption validated by what students want from the new technology as well.

David: We visited a high school in New York – UA Maker Academy – to talk to students about how they like to learn and how they would like to use VR. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the students themselves articulate a desire for meaningful VR experiences that integrated with other lessons at school, rather that one-off gimmicky experiences.

How do you see your solution evolving over the next six months to a year?

Jacqui: This is a really interesting time in education and VR because the field is so wide open. There is rapid innovation in the user experience in VR, let alone in learning experiences. There is a lot of room to play and analyze to figure out what the best learning routines are in this new medium. So, we’re planning to test our experiences a lot as we develop them to get this guidance from watching students use the experience.

David: It’s a little bit like panning for gold. We’re setting up the infrastructure that’s going to let out students discover valuable little bits of experiential learning, and we’ll be watching closely to see what those look like so we can make room for more of them. And the more gold dust you find, the closer you are to the motherlode. Said another way: We’ll keep taking this approach, enabling students to explore, measure, and interact with simulated environments, and build on the best parts of it based on the feedback we get from teachers and students.