RiVR team meeting

The RiVR team works on its projects.

Revolutionizing Learning Through Immersive Virtual Reality

Lehigh students and educators pioneer virtual reality games, offering unprecedented access to local history and environmental systems.

As technology continues to transform how people perceive and interact with their surroundings, the Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellowship project team “RiVR” (Research in Immersive Virtual Reality) is trailblazing new pathways in teaching and learning.

The story of RiVR started with Alec Bodzin, professor of instructional technology and teacher education, who envisioned integrating immersive virtual reality with educational platforms. In 2018, his idea took flight, literally, with a prototype that allowed middle school students to virtually soar over the Lehigh Valley, providing a bird's-eye view of their local environment.

Intrigued by this innovative approach, the students enthusiastically responded 'yes' when Bodzin asked if they'd like more games to learn about local history and the environment. This positive feedback inspired Bodzin and his research group to delve deeper into VR technology, seeing its potential to dynamically and interactively facilitate student exploration of local environments and their rich natural, social and industrial histories.

Currently, the RiVR team is developing five VR games, each with unique educational purposes. The Lehigh Gap Story, the first of the five to be developed, provides a virtual hike to learn about the environmental changes that occurred in the Lehigh River Watershed in Pennsylvania during the past two centuries. The second, Mystery of Lehigh Gap, contains five mini-games that take players back in time to learn history. Watershed Explorers, the third, engages players in an immersive learning experience centered on watershed issues and industrial history. The fourth game, Flood Adventures, guides students through flood safety in flood-prone environments. The fifth and the newest game, How Healthy Are Our Rivers and Streams, emphasizes environmental health, and results from a partnership with the Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center.

"Our goal is to transform the way students learn," Bodzin says.

Having observed many unengaged learners in traditional classrooms, he believes the RiVR team’s approach holds the potential to revolutionize education.

"There's a strong possibility that our work could be a significant game-changer," he says.

Our goal is to transform the way students learn.

Professor Alec Bodzin

As the project has grown, so has the team. Each year, more than a dozen students participate, including undergraduates from multiple majors, graduate students from the College of Education, and senior students working on Capstone projects in computer science.

Additionally, other professors have joined the project’s mentorship team, each contributing their expertise and enriching its scope. Among them are David Anastasio, professor of earth and environmental sciences; Tom Hammond, associate professor of instructional technology and teacher education; Zilong Pan, assistant professor of instructional technology.

Over the past years, the team has established strong partnerships with several local institutions that are dedicated to educating the public about the Lehigh Valley’s natural and industrial history: the Delaware and Lehigh Heritage Corridor & National Canal Museum, the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, the Nurture Nature Center, and the Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center. A selection of the RiVR team’s games can be played online via partners' websites.

The RiVR project has been featured in over a dozen academic journals. Conference invitations have arrived globally, and most notably, the team's game, "Flood Adventures," which instructs players on flood survival strategies, has attracted the interest of educators in Australia, thus extending the team's influence on a global scale.

Robson Martins de Araujo-Junior became involved in the RiVR project during his first year as a Ph.D. student in the College of Education at Lehigh. Now a sixth-year Ph.D. student, Junior has always loved video games and believes in their power to educate, inspire and make change. His passion found purpose in a unique collaboration with Bodzin, focused on creating immersive educational games.

Now the project’s manager and lead, Junior has self-taught VR technology and leads the team to stay updated with the latest tech advancements. The Watershed Explorer game is the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation.

"Each game is like a journey, exploring river systems or revealing industrial past treasures. Students enjoy the games and simultaneously develop skills like map reading and interpreting geographical features," said Junior.

This summer, the team aims to finalize the Lehigh Gap Story and release the game on the Lehigh Valley Gap Nature Center website. Junior, confident about the project's future, underlines the interdisciplinary approach as its strength.

"Our diverse team enables us to create curriculum-aligned, engaging games, preparing students for real-world professional scenarios," he says.

Kavya Jhaveri '25, a computer science major with a minor in data science and entrepreneurship, is a game developer on the team and a 2023 Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellow on RiVR, alongside Jonah Burd '24, majoring in computer engineering, and Quan Le '26, majoring in computer science.

"This project has been an inspiring journey," Jhaveri says. "It combines my passion for game development with the potential of VR as an educational tool. It has allowed me to apply my skills in a practical context and demonstrated the transformative power of immersive technology in shaping how we learn."

--Story by Haidan Hu

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