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YSJ University Press: Augmented reality sessions bring science alive for primary pupils in York (2024)

Published March 15th 2024.

A multi-disciplinary team from York St John University comprising of academics from Virtual and Augmented Reality teaching, Games Design, Graphic Design, Education and Music Production have joined forces with a York-based multi-academy trust and industry professionals to develop a tool which uses augmented reality to make science teaching more engaging.

Worldwide phenomenon Pokémon GO has put augmented reality on the map in recent years, with its use of computer-generated imagery overlaid on real life environments. 

The Epic Science research project received £18,500 of funding from Fortnite creator Epic Games, as part of their MegaGrants programme, to develop a new way of teaching science to primary school children. The result is the creation of an app using software built using the Unreal Games Engine, the world’s most open and advanced real-time 3D creation tool for photoreal visuals and immersive experiences. 

The project is led by Warren Fearn, Associate Professor in Virtual and Augmented Reality, with the science content designed by Dr Katy Bloom, Associate Professor in Initial Teacher Education at York St John University and Jake Reeves-Kemp, a teacher and computing lead with Ebor Academy Trust in York. The project aims to gain an insight into how augmented reality experiences should be best integrated into primary school Key Stage 2 teaching (children aged 7 to 11). The team has explored how primary science is currently being taught to look for opportunities for augmented reality to add value and bring science education alive. 

The Epic Science exhibition has been taken into schools in York and also displayed on the York St John University campus to champion British Science Week. This ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) features an eclectic mix of entertaining and engaging events and activities for people of all ages across the UK. Pupils from Haxby Road Primary Academy in York were treated to a demonstration session where a group of year 4 and 5 children road-tested the app. 

The exhibition uses a set of large 3D cardboard shapes to teach science through augmented reality experiences activated by the camera on a tablet. Pop up characters on screen guide children around five stations focusing on climate change. Questions and videos at each station test the children’s knowledge of habitats, materials, renewables, climate and healthy eating. At the end of the session, the children work together to complete a quiz and are then encouraged to take a selfie with the characters on screen. 

Feedback from the children who took part from Haxby Road Primary Academy included: 

“It's easy to follow and you can move around with it. You can't do that with YouTube”; “I liked how high quality it was, not from headsets but from your own iPad”; “This was 3D, fun, interactive and better than Tiktok”; and “I enjoyed it because it's cool and things popped up. It's epic!”

The Epic Science team have worked closely with teachers in Ebor Academy Trust in York to gather feedback on the barriers they face when teaching science, which helped inform the development of the app. Describing the project Warren Fearn, Associate Professor in Virtual and Augmented Reality at York St John University said: 

“This research aims to inform the intervention of augmented reality experiences for primary education that will have a higher chance of classroom adoption. Despite the growing potential of using augmented reality, there remains a low uptake for teaching and learning due to constraints in day-to-day delivery in primary classrooms. We are hoping that by showing the software in action to children and teachers we can present new opportunities for engagement in primary sciences.” 

Katy Bloom, Associate Professor in Initial Teacher Education at York St John University added: 

"We’re facing some pretty tough challenges on a global scale currently; climate change, increasing our use of renewable energy sources, clean water for all, food insecurity, loss of habitats, to name a few, and we’re looking to science and STEM to address these problems for us. 40,000 STEM jobs go unfilled every year, so it's vital that our young people experience what STEM can do for them, and potentially see themselves contributing to that in future careers. After all, STEM is what created this learning experience for them!" 

Jake Reeves-Kemp, classroom teacher at Haxby Road Primary Academy and computing lead for Ebor Academy Trust joined the class testing out the Epic Science app. He said:

“The event during Science Week was a resounding triumph! The children were captivated, watching scientific concepts come to life before their eyes. It was a celebration of exploration and experimentation - the true heart of science.” 

Following the workshops in schools, the project team will conduct observations, interviews and focus groups with the children and teachers to inform the next stage of the project development. In addition, Warren Fearn has set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) ‘3D R WE’ through the York St John Enterprise Centre, to help support schools to adopt immersive technologies in the classroom. 

Image shows: Pupils at Haxby Road Primary Academy, from left, Ben, Alan, Freya and Joshua, use their tablet to see the augmented reality created by the cardboard shapes. Looking on is Warren Fearn from York St John University and Jake Reeves-Kemp, right, classroom teacher and computing lead for Ebor Academy Trust. Photo by Tim Moat


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