‘Gaming learning’ allows Queensland students to muster cattle, drive tractor, plant crops from classroom

Teachers call it “gamified learning” — a classroom lesson that feels like you’re playing a video game.

Students at a school on Queensland’s Western Downs have embraced it in the form of virtual reality (VR) educational technology designed to encourage more young people into agricultural careers.

The moment kids at Dalby State High School’s Bunya Campus slide on a set of VR goggles and pick up the controller, it feels like they are right there in the yard moving cattle from one pen to another — or behind the wheel of a huge tractor ready to drive out of the shed.

The Endeavour Foundation has worked alongside teachers and students to design and create this cutting-edge technology to give students, both with and without a disability, a feel for handling cattle and broadacre farming.

Safe way to experience farming
Student Erin Taylor believes the VR technology offers a safe way to experience the industry.

“People might be scared and not know what to do, so I think this is a really great experience to get in there but not get in there,” she said.

Through a partnership with Arrow Energy, Endeavour Foundation began developing VR programs to help prepare students with a disability for life after school.

In 2020, it approached Dalby State High School to trial some of those programs, which are now in 30 Queensland schools.

The school realised that with 42 per cent of the national feedlot occupancy within a 200-kilometre radius of Dalby, there was a huge opportunity for students to find work in that industry.

But many young students were afraid to work with cattle.

So the school approached Endeavour to see if VR technology could be a solution.

Endeavour Service Design partner Chris Beaumont worked with a number of Dalby State High School’s older students to bring the VR Ag program to life.

“We came out here and filmed a lot of the students doing day-to-day practices that work into their cert to Ag, with a big focus on safety,” he said.

Mr Beaumont says learning to drive a tractor is a great example of the benefits of this VR program.

“We can bring it into a virtual scenario first to keep everyone safe,” he said.

“We get them to experience what they need to do before they’re actually ready to go and do it on the farm.”

As with earlier programs, Endeavour designed the VR Ag program for students with a disability but soon discovered it offered value to students of all abilities.

Endeavour’s Community Solutions Group general manager Tom Mangen said it used a method of learning which was universal.

“One of the central features of learning is repeat learning and virtual reality provides an opportunity to do that in a very safe environment,” he said.

VR offers safe scenarios
Mr Beaumont agrees saying the pathway to employment is more challenging for people with a disability, but VR technology can make it easier with the added bonus that it doesn’t feel like learning.

“We just know that kids, with or without a disability, are all part of this gaming generation,” he said.

“We see kids doing our learning scenarios, but they think they’re playing a game, so they’re really engaged in it.”

But for students with disabilities, the new program was a lot more than just a fun way to learn.

Dalby State High School teacher Anne Rathmell says safety is paramount as the classroom for students at the Bunya Campus is a 404.7 hectares farm and VR Ag is an incredibly safe way for students to get a taste of farm work.

“Virtual reality allows students multiple opportunities to practice a skill,” she said.

“Whereas, if they’re in the yards, on a tractor or in a real-life situation, they have to get it right the first time.”

After spending time playing with the new program, student Dechlan Green was impressed with both its educational value as well as his and his classmate’s performance.

“I was pretty sceptical at first about how it would turn out because we had to do quite a lot of takes,” he said.

“But seeing the final product, I feel like it was time well spent and a good investment for the high school.”

VR popular with students
From a user’s perspective, Dechlan believes it’s the perfect way for students to feel at ease with working on a farm before trying it for real.

“I notice a significant difference in how I can view different aspects of a workplace in a safer environment if I wasn’t comfortable,” he said.

“Everyone can benefit from that.”

Fellow student Charlie Dudgeon says it was great that seeing him and the other students thriving in an environment they felt at home in would help younger students to feel the same way.

“I reckon it’s a great idea for younger kids who are thinking of joining the Ag program, but they’re a bit sceptical,” he said.

“They can just chuck one of these on and say,’ Yeah, I like this program. I think I’ll join it when I’m in grade 11 and 12. So I think it’s a great idea.”