The Robertson Lab is a research group at Dartmouth that studies the connection between sensory input and human cognition. In the Lab, that means observing how people react to different sensory environments and working to understand what those reactions can tell us about the everyday experience of neurodivergent individuals, including individuals with autism.

Dr. Caroline Robertson, Robertson Lab’s founder, often uses virtual reality to constrain study participants’ environments and capture their reactions. When COVID-19 prevented her participants from coming to her lab, she had to redesign those experiences to be used remotely. But then she started to wonder if she could use those same remote VR methods to show her PSYC 38 students, who are also mostly off-campus, the psychological phenomena they were studying in class.

“I realized that remote VR was a perfect opportunity for hands-on experiential learning,” said Robertson. “Students can actually do first-person science – directly experiencing the psychological phenomena we are studying in class, instead of just reading about them”

Dr. Robertson approached ITC’s Research, Teaching, and Learning group to see what was possible. Barbara Knauff and John Bell helped come up with a plan to sponsor the purchase of enough Oculus Quest 2 VR headsets to send one to each of the students in PSYC 38. With the generous support of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning’s Experiential Learning Initiative and ITC’s Learning Technology Venture Fund, the DEV Studio was able to purchase 35 Quest 2s for her students.

“It was actually touch and go for a while–there was a relatively short time to get the headsets in, and the Quest 2 was a hot commodity this year so they were hard to find and limited to two per customer,” Bell said. “I ended up having to buy several of them from different stores on Black Friday, which isn’t exactly how we’d normally get equipment. But in the end, Dartmouth’s Computer Store worked hard to track down a supplier willing to work around the limits for educational use and got us everything we needed.”

Dr. Robertson is in the process of preparing the Quests 2s with her experimental environment and distributing them to her students who are spread all over the world. “We’re boxing up all of the headsets this week! We have 10 VR experiences throughout the course. For example, in one experience, we simulate what the world looks like to an infant over the first months of life as depth and color perception slowly set in. In a second, we simulate how walking through a busy shopping mall might feel to an individual with autism. In a third, students virtually walk around the Dartmouth campus and learn about the neural mechanisms supporting navigation–how we track cardinal facing direction, recognize landmarks, etc.”

At the end of Winter ’21, the Quest 2s will be returned to the DEV Studio and made available to other classes and research projects.

Thanks to Barbara Knauff and Ian Clark in ITC, Mike Goudzwaard at DCAL, PSYC 38 TA AJ Haskins, and Robertson Lab’s Lab Manager Thomas Botch for making this project possible!