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"Philosophy of Space Exploration" UTSA's First Metaverse Course

In an experimental course at the University of Texas at San Antonio, students use VR headsets to participate in discussions, watch interactive videos of rocket launches, view footage from NASA telescopes and tour the ISS.

(TNS) — Anna Vescio floated inside the International Space Station in late November as it orbited 250 miles above Earth. She met astronauts who showed her the station, observed its scientific instruments and equipment and saw how its occupants live in space.

Then she removed her virtual-reality headset and was back in the Alamo City.

In previous years, Vescio, a junior at the University of Texas at San Antonio, might have discussed topics such as the station and other matters related to space exploration in a classroom or via Zoom. But thanks to technology and UTSA professors embracing it, she was able to tour the space station without leaving home.

Vescio is among 23 UTSA students who recently completed a class titled "Philosophy of Space Exploration" — the university's first course set entirely in the metaverse, an immersive version of the Internet accessed via virtual-reality headsets, augmented reality glasses, phone apps or other devices.

Students in the class, equipped with Meta Quest 2 VR headsets, embody 3D avatars to participate in academic discussions, watch interactive videos of SpaceX's launch of the Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral in Florida and view footage from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

"It's so much easier to pay attention in the metaverse," Vescio said after the final class of the fall semester. "In regular Zoom classes, I can get distracted and look at my phone. But when you're in VR you're all in it. It looks like you're in the space station, and you can see the astronauts' close quarters."

Chris Packham and Serife Tekin, the professors who developed and taught the course, were enthusiastic about their ability to attract and engage students interested in biology, astronomy, philosophy and other academic fields.

"This was all an experiment at some level," Packham, a professor in UTSA's physics and astronomy department, told his students as the course concluded. "I think it worked out quite well. It wouldn't surprise me that components of this course will be in other courses you encounter at UTSA."

Tekin, the UTSA Medical Humanities director and philosophy professor, congratulated students and told them she hopes the course increased their awareness of "the resources philosophy and critical thinking can provide."

In fact, administrators are closely observing the professors' and students' experiences to determine whether they want to offer more classes using augmented and virtual reality.


In fall 2021, Packham and Tekin partnered with colleague Carmen Fies, an associate professor of STEM education, to plan how to teach the class amid a growing interest in space-related matters across Texas.

The trio talked about NASA's longtime presence at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and Elon Musk's SpaceX compound in Boca Chica, where the space engineering company is planning to launch the Starship rocket system into orbit for the first time.

At the time, Tekin was completing a fellowship at the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. Packham — a board member of the international science team Galactic Activity, Torus and Outflow Survey — was awaiting information from the Webb Telescope that will enable him to study how galaxies interact with black holes about 130 million light-years from Earth.

The pair combined their expertise to form the new class.

"When you look at the history of philosophy, you will see that it was the mother discipline that had the humanities and the sciences contained," Tekin said while developing the course in March. "A lot of our first physicists and scientists were also philosophers."

Packham agreed that philosophers have long looked to the stars.

"When we think about the Big Bang or life on other planets, these are some of the grandest philosophical questions that have ever entertained philosophers way back to Socrates and Plato," he said. "At its core, science and philosophy are the same discipline."

Fies, an expert in pedagogy, helped the professors create a syllabus that would attract students interested in both astronomy and philosophy.

"Life doesn't happen in little pockets that are isolated, and you can address with blinders on," she said. "To now cross apply that is where the power of the course is."


Universities across the United States are investing in the metaverse.

MBA students at Dartmouth College are logging into a virtual reality class to learn about business markets in South India. The University of Kansas School of Nursing-Salina launched its "Metaversity" offering immersive medical learning. Students at Morehouse College in Atlanta are using virtual reality to tour the Underground Railroad as they learn about Black history.

In Texas, mass communication students at Sam Houston State University use virtual reality to study new technology and the Vision, Cognition, and Action VR Lab at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Perceptual Systems uses Meta VR headsets to study human behavior and biological motion. In San Antonio, professors have also used virtual reality to teach biology students about protein structures.

With such trends in mind, Packham and Tekin sought to co-teach UTSA's first class based entirely in the metaverse.

In May, Packham approached the university's division of Academic Innovation, which is tasked with introducing teachers to experts in technology and virtual learning to bring cutting-edge tech onto campus.

"VR is coming to education," Packham recalled telling administrators. "Does UTSA want to lead or follow?"

The university bought 30 Meta VR headsets and controllers, previously branded as Oculus. Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook, had sold the virtually reality system, including the headsets and controllers, for nearly $300 apiece.

Fies said the university was on board to learn how to use the technology in STEM-related courses.

"These are super powerful technology tools," she said. "You can get a quasi-direct experience with something that really doesn't exist in the space that you're in.... You can make use of that as if you were in the physical environment with things that you see on that screen."


In the syllabus for "Philosophy of Space Exploration," Packham and Tekin said there are periods in humanity — such as the industrial revolution, the first space race and the information age — when a "true inflection point in advancement occurs."

They see humanity entering another such period involving the rapid exploration of nearby and outer space, whose activities raise ethical implications.

"How can the problems of past 'frontier' exploitations be avoided?" they ask in the syllabus, which stated that by the end of the three credit-hour course, students would be able to "evaluate the difference and relationships between science and pseudo-science" and "apply digital literacy tools to illustrate and articulate space-related issues."

During the fall semester, students read the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the metaverse, they engaged in earnest academic debate over the benefits and risks of space exploration, the definitions of life and sentient artificial-intelligent life, the reasons for possible exploration and settlement of the moon and Mars, and the ethics of "terrestrial" climate change and the militarization of space.

"We asked opening questions like, 'Who owns the moon?' 'Who owns Mars?'" Packham said. "Then, we can go deeper. What is life? And that question might become more important as we explore Mars."

Students initially found such questions to be far-fetched. But most said they eventually grasped their relevance as NASA and private companies have ramped up efforts to explore space and carry astronauts to the moon and beyond.

SpaceX had already signed onto NASA's Artemis program for the third mission later in the decade. A Starship rocket is expected to dock with the Orion capsule in orbit around the moon and take two astronauts to the lunar surface. Meanwhile, Musk continues to tout his long-term plans of using Starship to colonize Mars.

"This is all just around the corner," Packham said. "We're going to have to face these questions imminently."


In a recent class session, professors and students met in the metaverse to discuss the philosophy of artificial intelligence.

They created avatars resembling themselves, including their styles of clothing, whose mouths moved when they spoke. Similarly, their avatars would mirror their movements when they raised their hands or shifted in their chairs to address classmates and professors.

Several students sat in a classroom in UTSA's Applied Engineering and Technology Building while their avatars enjoyed a class with an ocean view and digital waves breaking before them.

Overall, the class went smoothly. But as with other forms of digital communication, students who sat near one another sometimes experienced static in their headsets and video delays.

And students required five-minute breaks occasionally as the virtual reality headsets can cause headaches and nausea.

Whitney O'Connell, an instructional designer in UTSA's Academic Innovation division, said — in the metaverse — that she was collecting student surveys regarding their experiences to analyze at the end of the semester.

"Over the years, UTSA professors have used VR on an extremely rare basis, but now it's really catching on," O'Connell said. "Now we're asking, 'Does the use of VR impact the student learning experience? Is it helping the students learn better?'"

So far, she said there's been "a lot of positive responses."

Vescio, a biology major, had never used virtual reality technology and — like others in the class — didn't realize she'd be using Meta Quest 2 VR headsets until she looked at the syllabus.

"I just thought the course sounded interesting," she said. "I had no idea about the VR."

Once she put on the headset she came to appreciate the metaverse's advantages as she spoke through her avatar.

"It feels real," she said. "Sometimes, I get nervous speaking in front of classes. But it's easier behind the avatar. It eases my anxiety."


The professors plan to write academic papers to share what they've learned through surveys and other data with UTSA administrators and the astronomical, education and philosophical communities.

They're also set to give a presentation in January at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

Both Packham and Tekin said they believe the virtual reality technology helped introduce students to philosophy and astronomy, which they consider complicated topics that many shy away from.

"My biggest challenge is to get rid of their fears around science or space knowledge," Tekin said. "They always think of science as difficult to fathom. At first, they were nervous. But I think the VR goggles were helpful, because they could explore the ISS and other places and became more empowered as they understood."

"You can't be afraid of something that you actually understand," she said. "VR helped make it better."

Students from various academic backgrounds said they enjoyed the class. And, similarly to Vescio, most talked about how virtual reality helped them overcome struggles in focus they experience in classrooms and more traditional online class sessions.

"I have immense struggles to focus elsewhere," said Alex Roush, an environmental science major who is interested in researching solar system planetary atmospheres to better understand climate change. "The VR feels like a field trip times 1,000. When we put the goggles on and went to the ISS, I felt different."

©2022 the San Antonio Express-News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.