Journal of Science Education and Technology

, Volume 28, Issue 3, pp 265–284 | Cite as

Investigating Potential Relationships Between Adolescents’ Cognitive Development and Perceptions of Presence in 3-D, Haptic-Enabled, Virtual Reality Science Instruction

  • R. L. HiteEmail author
  • M. G. Jones
  • G. M. Childers
  • M. Ennes
  • K. Chesnutt
  • M. Pereyra
  • E. Cayton


Virtual presence describes a users’ perception of a virtual reality (VR) environment (VRE), specifically, of their involvement (sense of control within a virtual environment with minimal distractions) and immersion (multi-input sensory engagement providing apparent realism of objects and interactions). In education, virtual presence is a significant construct as highly immersive VREs have been linked to users reporting memorable and exciting teaching experiences. Prior research has described that adults and children report different levels of presence when subjected to identical VREs, suggesting cognition may play some role in users’ perceptions of presence. According to Piaget, concrete operational development is a watershed moment when adolescents develop the ability to understand abstract concepts and make assessments what is and is not reality. This period in cognitive development may influence children’s and adolescents’ perceptions of presence. This is an exploratory study of seventy-five 6th-grade and seventy-six 9th-grade students who participated in an instructional module about cardiac anatomy and physiology using a 3-D, haptic-enabled, VR technology. When surveyed on their perceptions of virtual presence, there were no reported differences between grade levels. When assessed using a Piagetian inventory of cognitive development, the analyses indicated that the sixth-grade students’ understanding of spatial rotation and angular geometry was positively correlated with the reported perceived control and negatively correlated with distraction. This study suggests that the spatial acuity of younger learners plays an important role when using VR technologies for science learning. This research raises questions about the relevance of users’ cognitive development when using emergent VR technologies in the K–12 science classroom.


Cognitive development Instructional technology Science education Virtual presence Virtual reality 



The authors would like to thank the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation for their contribution of resources and materials to this research and the North Carolina State University College of Education for providing financial support through a Dissertation Support Grant.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Authors Hite and Jones have received prior travel support (less than $1000 per year) and consulted (less than $2000 total) for the zSpace company.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Curriculum and InstructionTexas Tech UniversityLubbockUSA
  2. 2.Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology EducationNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA
  3. 3.Department of Teacher EducationUniversity of North GeorgiaDahlonegaUSA
  4. 4.Department of Professional EducationCampbell UniversityBuies CreekUSA

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