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New Virtual Reality Projects in Progress

Educators, researchers and professors are increasingly adopting Virtual Reality (VR) programs for educational use, as the technology has advanced and become more affordable. VR can transport learners to immersive experiences that are engaging and realistic. This year our department has begun work on two virtual reality projects with very different audiences and approaches.

3D cartoon character of an elderly woman in a hospital bed.
Scene from the Virtual Reality environment for dietetics education.

VR for Student Experiential Learning

Researchers at Rutgers University and NMSU are collaborating on a tool to strengthen nutrition students and interns’ clinical competence and professional skill. The project, “iENDEAVORS: Innovative Enhancements of Nutrition and Dietetics Education using Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality to Overcome RDN Shortages,” is based on an initial VR project created by Gabriel Phillips from the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at New Mexico State University (NMSU). Building on work done by Gaby Phillips at NMSU, this project was intended to offer virtual experiences which replicate some of the work nutrition students do in their mandatory internships as part of their academic work.

3D cartoon image of a white-haired woman sitting up on a hospital bed.
Dietetics students can practice interacting with patients in the VR environment.

A larger team, led by Carol Byrd-Bredbenner at Rutgers, is expanding this work with additional case studies. The project creates a safe environment for dietetics students to practice situational responses to patient behaviors related to cognitive difficulties, communication skills and counseling. By giving students access to different situations (such as a hospital patient who was just diagnosed with cancer, a home-bound patient struggling with diabetes, or a child who is dependent on their parents’ choices), the program guides students in building their empathy and offering multiple types of appropriate responses.. The project is currently being developed for the Oculus Quest headsets, which are now more widely available for classrooms due to their affordability.

white dunes with undulations diagonally across the frame and a bright sun in the background
Patterns on the dunes from a windy day at White Sands National Park

VR for Visitors to White Sands National Park

Nicole Pietrasiak, Assistant Professor of Environmental Soil Microbiology in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at NMSU, has collaborated with White Sands National Park on her research into the unique microbial worlds in the soils of the park.

Foreground of white sand dunes with mountains in the background
Sunset vista at White Sands National Park

She has proposed VR work, “Discovering the Hidden Microscopic World of White Sands National Park,” that helps visitors understand research into the microscopic biomes in the park's surface soil and sediments. Audiences will be transported into a microscopic world via VR to experience the biodiversity of White Sands, including microscopic creatures like tardigrades. This will help visitors understand the role these biomes play in the environment of the park and the importance of research to the community. White Sands National Park officials intend to have approximately twenty Meta Quest 2 headsets available to visitors in the park’s Visitor Center.

Virtual Reality can support learners in exciting ways — by immersing them into a new world, rich story or complex emotions such as the case studies designed for the dietetics intern students, or giving them a chance to see things they don’t normally get to such as the microscopic worlds of soil crusts. It’s yet another tool our department can use to engage learners.

Written by Pamela Martinez Ed.D., Assistant Professor & Extension Learning Technology Specialist


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