Elementary school science is about asking questions, collecting data that bear on those questions, and building support for answers. Throughout history, teachers have relied on accessible local environments to stimulate young learners' questions and to provide direct access to observable and measurable phenomena. Local environments have the advantages of convenience and salience, but they also have three important drawbacks: they may emphasize activity over learning, they may limit the domain of inquiry, and, at least in natural environments, they may constrain teachers' ability to scaffold learning by reducing complexity.
For the past year, we have been developing instructional interventions which employ virtual ambients--simulated natural and synthetic environments--as loci for children's scientific exploration. Virtual ambients are three-dimensional "first person" spaces within which users may navigate in space, scale, and time. Virtual ambients may include simulated scientific instrumentation, and may provide users with "bread crumbs" as navigation and data collection aids.
Virtual ambients may be static or dynamic, but unlike traditional simulations, virtual ambients offer users no direct control over independent variables. Nothing that the user may do within a virtual ambient can affect the course of the underlying simulation. This constraint is designed to reduce the cognitive burden of exploring complex input spaces by limiting young learners to familiar concepts and activities: moving around, seeing things at different scales, and imagining the past and future. It does not preclude the articulation and investigation of causal hypotheses; it simply shifts the burden from artificially manipulating preconditions to finding instances of varying preconditions in space or time.
Virtual ambients share a motivational base with field- and video-based classroom investigation technologies in their focus on children's direct observations of phenomena. Like video, virtual ambients benefit from their ability to focus attention to a manageable data domain; like field-based activities, they provide "first-person" experiences which allow learners latitude in observational practices.
Virtual ambients are implemented on large, multi-user displays, intended for use by small groups rather than by individuals, supporting collaborative learning experiences. Because they are deployed on scarce resources, they are carefully constructed within a pedagogical framework which combines non-technology-based whole-class and small group activities with appropriate but less frequent technology-based work.