Art + Science: A VR Field Trip for High School Students

The Art + Science: A VR Field Trip for High School Students Program (henceforth referred to as the VRFT Program) uses immersive technology as well as an authentic analog experience to connect learners to art, conservation, and scientific inquiry. In this program, museum educators bring 33 Oculus Go VR headsets and an ancient work of marble sculpture into a high school classroom and facilitate an hour-long investigation into the critical question: How does scientific inquiry impact how a conservator preserves and restores works of art? The centerpiece of the program is a 360 video of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s (NCMA) conservation lab, preloaded on the VR headsets. The 360 video features interactive hotspots within the virtual environment that students can navigate independently. Hotspots include narrated images, video content, and quizzes to engage students with a variety of conservation topics, including X-ray, UV, and infrared analysis, and how works of art are treated using solvents and other laboratory tools. Students learn how conservators use scientific data to solve problems and are given the opportunity to use visual analysis and deductive reasoning to answer questions posed by the resource. By designing a non-linear experience that allows for student choice and interactivity, the 360 platform encourages curiosity and independence in students as they explore and make connections between art and science. 

When not immersed in the VR experience, students continue practicing visual analysis and inquiry by exploring a 2000-year-old marble head, a teaching object in the Museum’s collection that provides the analog counterpart to the digital exploration of art conservation. Students don nitrile gloves, hold the object, take measurements, and study its details while sketching and writing a condition report. As the object was recently acquired by the Education Department at the NCMA, little is known about its origin, subject matter, and original context of use, nor has it been formally assessed by a conservator, making the students’ exploration and assessment an authentic inquiry-based activity. Pre- and post-visit activities extend the learning around the digital and analog components of the program.

The VRFT Program expands the NCMA’s successful virtual field trip program into VR, allowing for a more immersive learning experience while simultaneously giving access to an inaccessible museum space: the conservation lab. The program responds to the institution’s 2020-2025 Strategic Plan and its goal to prioritize statewide educational outreach. With the second-largest rural population in the nation, many NC school districts lack funding and access to VR equipment and digital learning opportunities that integrate technology, art, and science. The program brings these resources within reach and connects schools across North Carolina with their state art museum.