Thursday, March 25, 2010

OpenSim Mars Simulation

I just finished a fantastic series of classes taking three groups of 5th graders on a virtual Mars field trip. First we looked together at the surface of Mars using the Mars edition of Google Earth. We zoomed in to a particular crater named Tharsis Tholus. Then the students logged in to a Mars Tharsis Tholus 3D simulation I created with OpenSim (standalone, Diva Distro v.0.6.8, 2x2 subset of 4x4 megaregion). Pairs of students manipulated an astronaut avatar. Their mission, as you can see in the video, is to don their helmet and backpack in the space station, venture out into the crater, find and collect meteorite samples, and bring them back to the space station for analysis. (This was all possible because of the work of Drew Crow of BlueSkySchool blog, who figured out how to use NASA MOLA terrain data to make the terrain files for OpenSim. He sent me the terrain files as well as xml files for the Windlight settings so the sky and water would look more like Mars.)

I embellished Drew's efforts by creating a space station, avatar astronaut clothing, and helmet and backpack prim attachments. I also changed the gravity settings in OpenSim.ini to z=-3.8 so they would bounce really high when they went over bumps in the terrain. That was cool. The students logged in using accounts I created and had pre-configured to be located in the space station. I made a tutorial on paper they used to log in, move around, and attach their helmets and backpacks properly, and copy and rez their meteorite samples. They needed to work in pairs to manage all the details of the experience.

And what an experience! The students were awestruck at what they were seeing and doing. I was impressed these kids were able to do this, given that they have never used this type of interface before. It really helped to provide them with the preparation and scaffolding. In our wrap up talk at the end of each class they talked about how they really felt like astronauts and found it interesting figuring out how to coordinate staying together, which I emphasized as a big challenge of the simulation (I mean, who wants to get lost on Mars...).

Some thoughts for next time:
  • Despite the tutorial, they did need quite a bit of support. I had to help them detach and reattach helmets that go stuck onto hands and torsos, keep them from flying (extremely fun when they realized how, but not part of the simulation--who could blame them?), and help those who wandered off use the mini-map to find their way.
  • One snafu was that in one class two groups got confused about which account they were supposed to use and kept logging in with the same account, resulting in the other group getting kicked out. I didn't figure this out (actually they figured it out) until well into the class, which prevented me from providing the above support to the rest of the class. So that session became a bit of a free-for-all. What I'll do next time is include the specific account info in each tutorial sheet so they won't make that mistake.
  • The most difficult part for these virtual world newbies was attaching prims. I mean, when have they ever seen a pie menu? I think in the future I'll see if there's a way to script helmets and backpacks that attach themselves when touched.
  • We had to use high-end video cards, iMacs and Dell XPS desktops, for the windlight settings to work. This wouldn't look like Mars on, say, laptops, or even the older (~5 yrs) iMacs we have. And of course wired network connections.
  • For the machinema, I found some good tips here, such as hiding the UI. Actually I think Drew sent me this, too.
  • I found it really interesting that in order to stay together some students started using local chat. I hadn't shown them that or intended for them to use it, but it did come in handy, for example, as a way to tell another astronaut they had finished collecting meteorite samples and were ready to go back to the station. One thing it suggests is that at times at least they were feeling more present "in-world" than out since they could have looked a few feet away and just spoken to the students directing that astronaut. One thing that would be really interesting--though it would only work with 1 : 1 students to avis--would be using headsets and voice chat for them to talk as if they had radio communication. On the one hand it would be more immersive. On the downside they would have a harder time following the paper tutorial.

Instructional Videos With Storytelling Alice

I had a more successful time using Storytelling Alice with my 7th grade students this year. Last year I constrained the content of the animations to their current biology topic, genetic inheritance. Understandably, this didn't excite them, though a few came up with some good animations. Instead, I decided to let them choose any topic for their animation as long as it was something students learn in our school in Kindergarten through 7th grade with the intention of making the good ones available to teachers to teach with. I thought they would be more invested in their topics if they could choose them and knew that they might be used in the future. Here below is one of the best examples:

Some observations:
  • I required them to use at least two scenes and they did for the most part. One interesting thing is some of them simply scripted only one scene, fading the camera to black and back up in the middle of it to transition to the second scene, avoiding the somewhat confusing process of creating a new scene and that business of moving the camera tripod.
  • Many of them manipulated the camera angles a lot more, such as following a character, resulting in much more dynamic animations.
  • Looking at them as pedagogical resources, many of them ended up looking more like lectures rather than showing their topic with some kind of illustrative narrative. The above example follows the latter approach, but many of them simply depicted a teacher in a classroom talking to the students about the topic! I think this is a result of the dominant paradigm in my school. Students are so familiar with the lecture format so that's how they imagine their animation being used.
  • Widening the availability of topics appeared to work well. The topics they chose ranged from teaching math strategies and topics to history topics to French vocabulary to social development, which they learn about in their "life skills" class. This last topic was quite popular, as it allowed them to focus on issues of friendship, social status, and bullying.
  • Students this year discovered a couple new things about Alice. One is the ability to drag methods and drop them onto characters even in "adding objects" mode to move them around, which surprised me. They also became very interested in recording their own audio to make the characters speak and matching the audio with the say content using do together. In some cases this resulted in file sizes above 10 MB that became hard to save to network folders and I had to make them keep their audio clips really short.