Mission to Mars: Group Interactions in a Virtual Reality Learning Experience

Concurrent Session 1
Blended Research

Brief Abstract

Go on a Mission to Mars! We discuss our research on student interactions utilizing virtual reality, where students role-play, explore Mars, establish a base, and decide how to grow crops to sustain human life. The virtual Mars environment is demonstrated; role-playing, communication, and team work using virtual reality is discussed.


I am a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at Madison Area Technical College, where I serve as advisor for the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society. When I am not teaching courses such as Sociology of Marriage and the Family, Introduction to Women’s Studies, Introduction to Sociology, and Leadership as an Art, I serve as the Co-Coordinator of the Social Sciences Pre-Major, the Gender and Women’s Studies Certificate and the Data Analytics Certificate at Madison College.

Extended Abstract

The topic for this session is research on group interactions in virtual reality (VR). At this session, we present the results of our research on role-playing, communication, and team work in a team-based laboratory botany project—a mission to Mars—using the virtual reality platform Acadicus as well as Blackboard Collaborate.  For their project, botany student pioneers use virtual reality to become explorers on Mars, establish a base, and decide what kinds of crops to grow to sustain human life indefinitely.

We analyze the results of these group interactions in virtual reality by observing the students’ reflection assignment responses about their experience with the project.  The purpose of the research is to understand more about students’ experience with the virtual reality platform Acadicus in connection with the assignment, how students communicated with their teams during the course of the project, and lastly, what their thoughts and feelings are about role-playing the characters for the mission. 

To illustrate the importance of our research for this community, we must first provide some context. Dr. Carlson is a biologist who specializes in botany and Dr. Gulbis is a sociologist who specializes in forming and sustaining healthy relationships, and in this case, teams.  Both researchers are full-time faculty members at Madison Area Technical College and have long been interested in innovation in teaching and learning. One impetus for this research was the COVID-19 pandemic and the transition to emergency remote teaching (ERT), which has had a negative impact on students (e.g. Perets et al., 2020; Wester et al., 2021).  Drs. Carlson and Gulbis recognized that ERT might make it difficult for students to engage as teams, particularly when the teams had never met in person.  This is of particular importance for Dr. Carlson’s botany class, where laboratory and team-based project work is key and involves the occupation of roles, teamwork, and communication.  The researchers pondered how to create an engaging project for students that they can conduct together virtually as a team that will also teach them vital “soft” skills that all lab workers and scientists need, such as teamwork and communication skills, which are in the realm of Dr. Gulbis’s areas of specialization. 

Luckily, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Madison College had invested in virtual reality long before the pandemic and was therefore in a position to help us launch a VR-based project immediately.  In collaboration with Jon Bouchard and his team at Acadicus, we seized the opportunity to utilize this important tool during the pandemic and ERT to discover an innovative and engaging way for students to work on a project as team and learn the course material as well as employer-sought “soft” skills without actually having to come together in the real world. The resulting “Mission to Mars” project assignment was born, inspired by both the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (2015) case study assignment “Farming in Space?” by Helen S. Joyner and Michael L. Allen as well as the novel The Martian (2011) by Andy Weir. 

The Mission to Mars project starts by dividing botany students into teams.  Each team must first choose and designate project roles by using their choice of a virtual roll of the dice or by deciding on their roles together using team work and communication. Students play the following roles throughout the project: Mission Control, the Colony Manager, the Agricultural Advisor, and the Astrobiologist.  The Astrobiologist is the only student who “explores Mars” as an avatar in virtual reality using the Acadicus platform; the other team members remain “on earth” in Blackboard Collaborate but are able to experience Mars through Acadicus in viewer mode. 

Next, the team works together in virtual reality as the Astrobiologist explores Mars. The team must find their base, determine where to place their colony infrastructure, and work together to select and justify the crops and agricultural practices that would result in a lasting and sustainable Mars colony.  When the mission is compete, students individually reflect on their experiences not only as botanist pioneers on Mars, but as role-players in a team who rely on group communication in virtual reality to carry out their mission. 

The results of our research are mixed.  On the positive side, we find that most students enjoyed the activity and were able to identify specific learning outcomes.  Overall, students enjoyed the role-playing aspect of the Mission to Mars project as well as the innovation of using virtual reality to create a Mars environment for students to explore in Acadicus.  One student writes, “It added reality and immersion to the experience and made it easier to get into character for the role play”.  Another student adds, “The idea of virtual reality in Mars is awesome. I wish that we could actually build or design in Mars to make it even more realistic”. 

As popular as the project was for its fun and innovative aspects, many students experienced technical difficulties given the novelty of the virtual reality experience for most of them.  Themes in commonly reported problems include installing and using Acadicus, using Blackboard Collaborate, and arranging to meet simultaneously with project teammates. For example, one student expressed that virtual reality diminished the project experience for them because “none of our computers (which were mostly laptops) were  able to open the software. As for my classmates they were able to download it fine, but as they opened the software it eventually crashed and shut down the computer. As for my laptop (MacBook Pro) couldn’t even open the file in order to completely download the software since it needed a separate app in order to open, but it resulted that it wasn’t available in the U.S. It was very complicated to use it”. 

The researchers recognize that there are technical improvements that will need to be made moving forward. Some important improvements can include securing laptops and VR equipment from CETL for future classes instead of having them use their own laptops, which tend to vary in quality and capacity.  In addition, it will be important to include new and innovative improvements from the company Acadicus, such as helping the researchers to improve the Mars environment itself.  Lastly, it is clear that there are numerous factors that impede students’ ability to schedule time with one another; understanding these factors is critical to successful virtual team work. 

This research has implications for the OLC community because this community was created to advance the quality of online education, which aligns with the goals of the project we created for our students. Beyond OLC, this research has much broader implications for the scientific community.  If we can learn how to create great virtual learning experiences for students in laboratory settings, we may be able to apply these findings to create great virtual work experiences for scientists in laboratory settings as well, who have also been affected by the pandemic (Korbel & Stegle 2020), may not be able to access their laboratories or places of employment, and may desire new and innovative methods to connect with their peers and places of work. 

Our plan for interactivity in this session is to offer the audience a question and answer period at the end of the presentation as well as to demonstrate the virtual Mars environment in Acadicus.  Participants who have laptops with the minimum requirements for installing Acadicus can use viewer mode go to our virtual Mars environment along with us!

Key Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of this session, participants should be able to:

  1. Define virtual reality.
  2. Describe the challenges of emergency remote teaching (ERT) unique to a laboratory sciences course.
  3. List and implement strategies to establish online teams in an laboratory science course.
  4. List and describe “soft skills” associated with working in a team or group environment.
  5. Describe examples of how virtual work may be employed in the classroom and beyond.


Korbel, J.O., & Stegle, O. (2020). “Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Life Scientists”. Genome Biology, 21. Article 113. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-020-02031-1

Perets, E.A., Chabeda, D., Gong, A. Z., Huang, X., Fung, T. S., Ng, K.Y., Bathgate, M., & Yan, E. C. Y. (2020). “Impact of the Emergency Transition to Remote Teaching on Student Engagement in a Non-STEM Undergraduate Chemistry Course in the Time of COVID-19”. Journal of Chemical Education, 97(9), 2439-2447. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.0c00879

Wester, E.R., Walsh, L.L., Arango-Caro, S. & Callis-Duel, K.L. (2021). “Student Engagement Declines in STEM Undergraduates during COVID-19–Driven Remote Learning”. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 22(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v22i1.2385