Screenshot from a video showing an elementary school student wearing a VR headset manipulating a DNA double helix in a virtual environment


Taking the Metaversity on the Road

An ambassador program at South Dakota State University connects undergrads—and virtual reality science education—with middle and high school students across the Mount Rushmore State

Two-plus years into the pandemic, there’s no lack of research aimed at assessing covid-19’s impact on higher education. For instance, one study, released in May by ECMC Group, found the percentage of Gen Z high school students considering a four-year degree fell from 65% in February 2020 to 51% in January 2022. A large reason for the drop? “High schoolers want direct pathways to careers,” per the report.

Just as there is a lot of research aimed at this issue, there are myriad solutions offered—by analysts, administrators, and institutions—to get students onto campus, as well as to ensure they’re prepared for a career after graduation. That includes educators at South Dakota State University, who have hit on a novel idea: virtual reality.

SDSU is one of 10 metaversities partnered with education product developer VictoryXR to bring cost-effective Meta Quest 2 headsets into classrooms. As part of that effort, the university’s College of Natural Sciences has launched an ambassador program that sends current undergraduates to visit South Dakota high schools for face-to-face sessions about the fun of studying science—particularly when that means using cutting-edge VR technology.

“Whether it's about SDSU, in the College of Natural Sciences, or simply science itself, we just really want to promote everything that we have to offer as a college and that a career in STEM can offer,” ambassador Julie Fischer tells The Elective. “From my experience this past year, many students were not aware of the endless possibilities. So our main focus was a lot of outreach to local area high schools, but then also supporting the students who come on our campus visit days and giving them a more detailed experience based on our experiences."

Fischer is a junior studying human biology with plans to work as a physical therapist in South Dakota after graduation. She is also one of the eight undergrads in the first class of ambassadors. Combined, they visited three South Dakota high schools and engaged with more than 100 students. Both numbers will likely grow in year two of the program.

Two young women smile while sitting at a table covered with literature and VR headsets

South Dakota State University College of Natural Sciences

Nichole Dial (left) and Laney Brown sit at a College of Natural Sciences info booth, which includes examples of the program's VR headsets alongside literature about the school.

SDSU already has the largest higher education footprint in South Dakota, with a fall 2021 enrollment of 11,465, from 47 states and 66 countries, across its nine colleges. But there is no guarantee that science-minded South Dakotan high schoolers will choose their own state university for their collegiate studies. For her part, Fischer was always excited about science and studied chemistry and anatomy in high school—majoring in a science was something of a no-brainer. She’s asked what effect an SDSU ambassador coming to her HS and showing off VR headsets might have had on her.  She says that would have made deciding to attend SDSU “100 times easier.”

"I would have been more confident in my decision because I'm getting a preview of what my college education experience at SDSU would be like,” she says. “It would make me feel special, knowing that this college kid came all the way to my high school, or reached out to me, and was like, 'Hey, I want you to try this.' It would just mean that much more to me, having that college kid kind of looking out for me."

Building those kinds of connections—and raising that kind of awareness of the College of Natural Sciences—was always the goal, says Greg Heiberger.

Heiberger is an assistant professor and Associate Dean for Academics & Student Success at in the school, which was created in 2018 from departments of other schools “to really bring science to the forefront,” he tells The Elective. “It really was to push forward the concept that this is a place to do science, to become a scientist, to prepare yourself for being at the cutting edge.”

The ambassador program is a big part of that effort. There are only a finite number of $6,000 VR headsets the College of Natural Sciences can afford. And faculty can’t visit schools all the time—South Dakota is too large a state with too dispersed a population. But middle and high schoolers love hearing from college students, so why not organize a small group of undergrads to meet with and connect with future enrollees?

Six high school students sitting at three tables, with one student at each table wearing a VR headset

South Dakota State University College of Natural Sciences

A high school class visited by College of Natural Sciences ambassadors try out the school's virtual reality learning experiences.

Heiberger says there’s great potential in the ambassador program for creating personal connections. But what’s more impactful is taking the school’s VR tech on the road and showing young people what they can do with it.

“It’s a science lab we can take on the road,” he says. "There are certainly some experiments we can take on the road, but there's some that we can't do for safety. We can't take a cadaver on the road, but we can take a virtual cadaver. We can do something like allow a middle school kid to hold DNA or walk through a human heart.”

Fischer has seen how well those experiences go over. Both the meta-cadaver and virtual DNA experiences, she says, are huge hits on school visits and when students visit campus.

But giving them the chance to engage with VR technology has a more basic function, Fischer adds. For many of the students, it’s the first time they’ve ever encountered a headset, let alone the educational potential of what they can do with it.

“That definitely was a hurdle for us,” she says. “I think the more schools and students that we visit with, there are just going to be more students that have had those VR experiences. But it was a little bit of a struggle right away, working with the students who hadn't been on VR headsets before and just trying to get them oriented to everything before we could actually go into our educational activity.”

Current-generation VR—that is, headsets so advanced they allow for creations of fully-immersive metaverses—is still a new experience for most people. It’s a reality Heiberger understands, and he sees beyond-the-classroom potential in what SDSU is doing with the tech.

Two smiling young women with thumbs up and an older smiling man wearing a VR headset standing between them

South Dakota State University College of Natural Sciences

Two College of Natural Sciences ambassadors with an SDSU alumni—school president Dr. Barry H. Dunn—trying out the school's virtual reality experience.

Right now, SDSU is using it in science programs. But not long from now, Heiberger says, the evolution of industries and how we work will likely mean collaborating in the virtual space.

“Think about the workforce needs when you're an engineer as you build that tractor cab at Caterpillar or design and test the next therapeutic at Novartis,” he says. “If we can get middle schoolers or high schoolers right now excited about science and VR, excited about science in some hands-on ways, I think we're really helping that pathway towards those future careers.”

That vision of the future is part of what gets ambassadors like Fischer excited about the work.

She’ll likely be part of the last wave of SDSU College of Natural Sciences students that won't have a four-year experience with VR. That didn’t impact the education she received, which she describes as “awesome.” But it does make her imagine how successive cohorts will go to school—and what that will say about her soon-to-be alma mater.

“I’m really excited for SDSU, and specifically our college, that we can be in the forefront of this VR charge,” she says. Being one of the ambassadors that got to use these headsets and promote them for the very first time makes you feel special. Getting to be a part of it that way, even though maybe my actual education wasn't impacted as much by the use of them, that's really rewarding.”