Mission to Mars through virtual reality

Man uses laptop computer.

Learning through VR 

Photo of Mars with two thumbnail images from users.

Admit it. You have thought about heading to Mars at least once in the last year. Times have been tough on Earth.

Now imagine you could actually take that trip to Mars. Well, at least virtually. 

New virtual reality frontier

Madison College biology instructor Dr. Kit Carlson thought of sociology instructor Dr. Angelika Gulbis while working on a new idea involving the use of virtual reality (VR) as a learning tool for her botany class.

Dr. Carlson knew Dr. Gulbis was already working with virtual reality and wondered if it could be incorporated into botany. Meanwhile, Dr. Gulbis was looking for a chance to use virtual reality to improve teamwork and communications among students in online classes.

The two worked together to create an activity for Dr. Carlson’s Fall 2020 class; a virtual Mission to Mars.

“I wanted an activity for students to work on as a team and develop a sustainable system to colonize Mars,” said Dr. Carlson.

The activity combines teamwork, communication, botany learning and of course, some fun. Students learn about sustainability, plant awareness and what it might be like to work with virtual teams to help colonize Mars.

Pioneers in learning

The instructors teamed up with Madison College’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CETL) to get the idea off the ground. CETL already had a relationship with Acadicus, a virtual reality company.

While reviewing the literature for the project, Drs. Carlson and Gulbis could not find examples of the use of VR in creating teams and improving communications skills among teams.  

“How could we use virtual reality to learn about the development of relationships, teamwork, and communication skills in a virtual environment?” asked Dr. Gulbis. “How would the Mars project help our students to build these skills as they learn to create sustainable agriculture on Mars? What do students want to learn?”

Since very little research has been conducted in this area, these instructors have become pioneers in the field with this unique opportunity for students.

Students exploring the technology

The virtual reality project offered a new way for students to engage in learning. Students were placed in groups with opportunities to make choices as they explored Mars.

The teams were then asked questions about their mission. What was communication like for the team? What went wrong? What went right?

Students worked together on their objectives. They had to work as a team to select plants that would be sustainable on Mars. They used their knowledge of botany and horticulture for this activity. Everyone on the team had their own roles and needed to collaborate.

The team learned in “viewer mode”, which does not require hand controls or headsets. The “astrobiologist” actually operates within the Acadicus environment. This means that they are in viewer mode, but they control their movements with their keyboards; their role involves a tactile experience. 

The other students observe the astrobiologist on Mars via Blackboard collaborate in viewer mode, which still gives students the sense that they are immersed in a different environment even though they are at home. 

“It’s sort of like when you are watching TV or playing video games and really are into it. It feels like you are there. "Our hypothesis is that the visual Mars environment will draw students in and enhance their learning experience. We are researching to learn if VR helps the lessons to sink in more,” said Dr. Gulbis.

Uncharted territory for instructors

This is a pilot project where Drs. Carlson and Gulbis are learning along with the students. The project and technology are still in the early stages of development.

Through their research, they have not found other colleges using virtual reality in this way. Madison College is one of the leaders in embracing virtual reality as a learning tool in the classroom.

“There is so much groundwork we didn’t anticipate. These things don’t happen in a semester. They take years to grow,” said Dr. Carlson.

Looking to the future of VR

Outside of the technology, Dr. Carlson hopes this project will help address equity issues faced by students. Some students face barriers with technology or the time to participate in a real-life lab.

She wonders if a virtual reality lab could create more opportunities for student to participate. The future could see some student in the lab, while other students participate through virtual reality.

“This could open up Madison College to the world in new ways,” said Dr. Gulbis.

By helping to solve some equity issues, virtual reality could promote retention and persistence for students. This tool could bring new opportunities for students who can’t always be on campus.

The access created by virtual reality also helps students beyond the classroom. Virtual reality lessons, like Mission to Mars, teach the skills employers want to see – teamwork and communication.

“We will see this become a life changing tool,” added Dr. Carlson.


Learn more about biology and sociology classes at Madison College.