Dr. Lev Horodyskyj: Science Education Gets a Virtual Makeover

by Emily Harari

You’re driving and you pull up behind a car at a red light. The light switches to green, but the car sits unmoved. What do you do?

Instinctively, you reach for the horn, and, after a quick blaring of sound, the car in front of you moves. 

You’ve just conducted a scientific experiment.

You observed the car not moving, but didn’t know why, so you assumed the driver ahead of you wasn’t paying attention to the road. By testing your hypothesis with a quick honk of the horn, you proved your assumption to likely be true. “That’s the scientific process in an everyday setting,” explains Dr. Lev Horodyskyj, a visiting assistant professor at the University of the Virgin Islands and a researcher with Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. He designs online courses that teach students to think like scientists, and his research reveals some of the best ways to do so.

Horodyskyj’s car scenario comes from his Observation-Assumption Module, an online exercise that teaches critical thinking skills. It emphasizes that thinking like a scientist is actually more intuitive than some may assume. Scientists try to answer the world’s mysteries with careful observation, but they can’t possibly observe everything. In spite of uncertainties, scientists proceed to craft hypotheses and even theories based on thoughtful assumptions. 

Teaching in different classrooms— in America, Ukraine, and Indonesia— Horodyksyj delves into these uncertainties with his students. An American or Indonesian student would honk their horn. Meanwhile, many Ukrainian students would drive around the stalled car, an idea that wouldn’t even occur to many of the Americans and Indonesians. “I think the operating assumption in Ukraine is that the car’s probably broken, because I think a lot of cars there break,” says Horodyskyj. “You have the same observation, but different assumptions because of different cultural experiences. Now you end up with different experiments.”

Horodyskyj strives to connect students with different perspectives through his virtual courses. For a political science class he’s designing, he will connect American and Indonesian students collaborating on environmental action. Often, such endeavors are part of ‘citizen science’ projects, in which scientists outsource their research to communities outside of academia. But Horodyskyj sees a better option: ‘community science.’

Rather than delegate tasks, scientists can actively engage communities in the scientific process and empower them to design their own solutions to the problems they face. For his course, the American students will contribute their environmental activism as the Indonesian students identify the environmental concerns of their communities. 

When Horodyskyj recently worked in Indonesia, he saw the need for technology; but he also noticed the obstacles that stand in the way. Virtual courses drained the limited electricity and internet available to low-bandwidth schools. One sustainable solution, which particularly inspired him, utilizes solar power. It’s a digital library called SolarSPELL and it can replace heavy textbooks. Horodyskyj noticed that textbooks often got destroyed by the island humidity, and he thinks that digital libraries can be the solution. He is currently developing his own technology to work with these systems, so more digital content can reach off-grid areas.

Even in areas with easy access to technology, most virtual learning platforms are poorly designed. “There just isn’t a lot of good technology that allows teachers to be really creative, which is a problem I’m trying to solve,” says Horodyskyj. Together with Smart Sparrow, he created HabitableWorlds, or HabWorlds, a virtual science course that teachers could easily tailor to their classrooms.

He launched the course at ASU and modified it every semester for five years based on the feedback from students, their teachers, and his research. The course was designed as an introductory science class, but more like a video game. Students begin their journey in outer space, where they’re instructed to identify planets capable of sustaining life. In order to complete their mission, they navigate through astrobiology lessons that include simulators and interactive virtual field trips (iVFTs).

Unlike his classrooms in Ukraine and Indonesia, Horodyskyj couldn’t observe the students of this online course in-person. Instead, he relied on computational algorithms that interpreted the students’ behaviors as they learned. After every semester, his team adjusted the course based on feedback from students, including the number of clicks and time spent on questions.

From these data, he’s been able to identify ‘traps’ in HabWorlds. Unlike a video game, these ‘traps’ aren’t intentionally set up to stop the player in their tracks. They’re difficult concepts that can frustrate students and discourage them from proceeding with the course.  With every iteration of HabWorlds, Horodyskyj and his team altered the course to keep students from getting stuck, or worse, quit. 

Dr. Horodyskyj has worked with Indonesian youth in the North Maluku region (eastern Indonesia) to become effective change-makers in their communities to address critical regional environmental issues, including climate change, plastic pollution, and air quality.

“A lot of online designs are structured towards removing frustration points; like if you don’t get it, I’ll tell you what the answer is, and you can move on.” But Horodyskyj sees this as a lost opportunity. “Just giving [students] the answer doesn’t help them learn; the learning is in the struggle.” 

Horodyskyj’s aim is to strike a fine balance between challenging his students and encouraging them. “You don’t want to be penalized for the learning process… The important thing is you get to the end,” he says. With this long-term goal in mind, he added virtual money to the course and came across interesting trends in his students’ spending behavior. 

The virtual cash was designed to discourage guessing, what Horodyskyj calls ‘lazy thinking,’ without punishing mistakes. It redirected students away from the conventional points system, which values correct answers over concept mastery. Rather than work toward a letter-grade, students focused on completing their mission— finding a habitable planet. They purchased shortcuts, automating the calculations for concepts they already mastered. As a result, they could allocate more time to lessons that challenged them, rather than repeat those that they’d already learned.  

Horodyskyj found that top-performing students used about half of their funds, while low-performing students exhibited more extreme spending behavior, barely investing or blowing through all their money. 

For the students who failed HabWorlds, Horodyskyj wanted to understand why their performance didn’t reflect their efforts. With user-data from the course, he identified common behaviors across the failing students: They studied for answers rather than understanding. They proceeded through the course in reverse order, skipping ahead to the quiz questions and backtracking to the lessons. Failing students were most likely preoccupied with finding the answers rather than learning the lessons themselves. Classes which disproportionately emphasize exams may similarly distract students and misdirect their efforts. Ultimately, HabWorlds’ top performers took the course in its correct order, which is intended to emphasize learning over test-taking and grades.

Horodyskyj also investigated which factors drove students into dropping out of the course. By comparing demographic data and survey responses from his students, he identified groups that needed extra support outside the virtual classroom. His data demonstrated disparities that could’ve gone unnoticed by teachers in an in-person setting.

As education increasingly shifts online, Dr. Lev Hordyskyj wants to ensure that current technologies are accessible all over the world. His international travels transport him to new classrooms and his immersive virtual courses, from car rides to space travel, similarly transport his students.

Emily Harari is a science communicator. She studied molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley and has enjoyed working in biotechnology startups. She aspires to promote trust and progress in biotech by applying her research experience and writing skills.

The initial publication of this article stated that Dr. Lev Horodyskyj currently teaches at Arizona State University (ASU). He no longer works at ASU and currently works as a visiting assistant professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. The initial publication incorrectly stated that Horodyskyj participated in the SolarSPELL project and that failing students were more likely than their peers to complete the HabWorlds course.

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