- Dreamscape Learn developed immersive, VR learning experiences for Arizona State University.
- Students learn STEM coursework using the VR experience, which has seen tremendous results.
- The company just raised a $20 million Series A and wants to distribute its course to other schools.
Virtual reality experience startup Dreamscape Immersive never thought it would be in the business of creating content for classrooms.
The company had been building immersive VR experiences, one of which was called the “Alien Zoo.” It was an idea based on an old, never-produced movie script that Dreamscape’s cofounder, Walter Parkes, the former head of DreamWorks Animation and a Hollywood film producer for movies like “Men in Black,” workshopped with blockbuster director Steven Spielberg.
Within Dreamscape’s “Alien Zoo,” spectators could interact with all sorts of creatures in an intergalactic wildlife sanctuary while seeing and sensing their fellow participants next to them as full-bodied avatars — something that other VR experiences had yet to perfect.
But that all changed when Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University visited one of the startup’s experiences in 2019.
“We’d been searching for many years spending time and money on how to do something we called ‘Realm 4 learning,’ where we’re turning the student into an explorer using technology,” said Crow. “Right before COVID, we saw Dreamscape Immersive as a tool so that someone could be an explorer, but it had no educational content at the time.”
Crow approached Parkes about an opportunity to use Dreamscape Immersive’s virtual reality technology as a teaching tool, and the two kicked off a partnership for a new spin-off venture called Dreamscape Learn.
Now, Dreamscape Learn has raised a $20 million in Series A funding to expand its curriculum offering and branch outside of ASU. The investors that participated in the round include Bold Capital Partners, GSV Ventures, Verizon Ventures, and Cengage Group.
When starting the joint venture, Parkes brought in a group of Hollywood screenwriters to team up with Michael Angilletta, the associate dean and head of the life sciences department at ASU, to write 18 biology course modules that could use the “Alien Zoo” experience as an immersive virtual biology lab.
For Parkes and Crow, it was crucial to write a strong narrative for the “Alien Zoo” lab, because the more engaging the story was in the virtual world, the more students would excel in the learning process.
“The connection between good storytelling and education is the difference between active and passive understanding,” Parkes said. “In a lot of teaching you’re told something, but in a good story, you’re led to a realization.”
The team worked to develop the interactive lab pilot throughout the pandemic and launched it in the spring of 2021. They officially rolled out the lab as part of ASU’s introductory biology courses in the spring semester of 2022.
In the lab, students are transported to the Alien Zoo wildlife sanctuary, and must work together in the VR space to diagnose what is causing population loss in certain endangered alien species. All of the physical and chemical parameters of the Alien Zoo are based on Earth’s scientific standards, so that when students are running tests and examining samples, all of the reactions are accurate to what would happen in a lab on Earth, Angilletta told Insider.
The virtual reality experiences are also supplemented with extensive coursework and written assignments outside of the Dreamscape Learn pods, and the corresponding exams are based entirely on real scientific laws and processes.
After an initial assessment and survey of the experience, the professors saw improvements of nearly a full letter grade in learning outcomes from students who took Biology in Dreamscape Learn versus its traditional lab program in a standard biology lab, with a median lab grade of 96% , which roughly equals a letter grade of A+. The results were especially pronounced for students from historically underserved backgrounds, said Angilletta.
Dreamscape Learn just finished its largest cohort yet at ASU for the fall 2022 semester, by the end of this spring semester, over 7,000 students will have taken the introductory biology course using the Alien Zoo lab.
Long term, the plan is to distribute the “Alien Zoo” offering to other universities and K-12 schools in the coming months, while developing new courses in chemistry and building a virtual planetary observatory lab, where students can study the impacts of climate change in a virtual laboratory.
The group also has plans to develop full “virtual classrooms” that can transport students to archaeological sites and historical worlds, like Mayan temples or ancient Egyptian tombs, Crow said.