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A Few Minutes With Matt Browning

AHS media relations specialist Vince Lara spends a few minutes with Recreation, Sport and Tourism assistant professor Matt Browning.

Click here to see the full transcript.

VINCE LARA: Hello. This is Vince Lara, Media Relations Specialist in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois. Today I'll spend five minutes with Matt Browning, Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Sport, and Tourism unit of AHS. All right, Matt. Your dad taught physics, so did you always imagine yourself teaching?

MATT BROWNING: I did. I actually got a teaching certificate for middle grade science because I thought I was going to work with children. I love playing with children. I love teaching children. And I went down that route, but then I actually got in what's called an environmental education degree and a job in environmental education as I was interning at this middle school.

And this was sort of a dream job. It was actually a park ranger job, where I was out working in natural environment, but then also teaching children about nature. And I couldn't turn that down. It was harder to get a park ranger job than a job in public school. So I went in a different direction.

But then I was able to return back to teaching in higher education. When I was a park ranger I got very interested in research. And so I went down this track of graduate school, getting my master's and my PhD, and was lucky enough to get an academic job. And so to answer your question, yes, but it's changed in terms of age demographics.

VINCE LARA: Interesting. You got your undergrad from Oberlin in biology. Did you initially want to be an MD? Was that where you were going with that?

MATT BROWNING: Yeah, so the short answer again is no. I think I've shifted, like a lot of people have. And I think that's the beauty of being in a place like a College of Applied Health Sciences. People have come from a lot of different backgrounds because they care about health and well-being. And there's a lot of different facets to it.

So when I got a degree in biology, I, again, was sort of interested in the natural world. How the natural works. I remember my favorite class there was on vertebrate structure and evolution. So we dissected all these bizarre creatures and we learned about their anatomy. And so, no, I certainly didn't think that would lead to a PhD, but I'm glad it had.

And so, again, two sides of the same coin. To move way back, how did I get interested in this field? And then in the first place, it was really my parents, I think, taking us out in the woods, going backpacking, canoeing. And I actually was lucky enough to grow up on 20 acres of woodlands. And every spring we'd go morel hunting. I'd build forts out in the woods. Go sledding all the time. And I think those early childhood experiences in nature really built that connection to nature that led to what I'm doing.

VINCE LARA: You made the connection as an outdoors person to trying to work in more of a virtual environment.

MATT BROWNING: Excellent question. And there is some concern about just using simulations of nature. Because I want people to get outside. I don't want to replace the real thing. So there's a couple of things. One is I also love technology. And so it's an opportunity sort of use skill sets and interests in multiple fields.

And the other thing is, a lot of people don't have the experience that I did growing up. They didn't grow up in the woodlands. They didn't have parents that had the skill set or the comfort level to take them outside. And so having these various immersive simulations of nature are great for people that maybe are transitioning into more of an outdoor recreation hobby or people that don't have any outdoors where they live. They live in a nature-poor city area. Or maybe they have some physical limitation where it's very hard to get out of the house. This sort of thing. So I'm glad that I'm pursuing this route because I think there's a need for it.

VINCE LARA: What are you most excited about in the upcoming year in terms of what you're teaching?

MATT BROWNING: Very good. Yeah, I'm glad you asked that. So I developed this online class. It's an eight week asynchronous class. It's currently a 199 class, which is in development. 199 LT. It's called Tech Innovations for the Experience Economy. And this is a class. It's an undergraduate class. There's still room in the class to sign up for the first eight weeks, the second eight weeks. And students get to reflect on how technology is impacting their own lives in our society, which, given how connected we are, I think everyone should reflect on, but I think a lot of people are also curious to reflect on.

So the class involves doing some readings and actually having these Oxford-style debates every week, where you have to argue for or against emotions such as smartphones in outdoor recreation settings are enhancing the experience, which you can see them enhancing it, or even see it distracting it.

And they also get to experience virtual reality every week. So they can come into my lab, which is a virtual reality in lab in 221 Huff Hall. Or they can come into the CITL Virtual Reality Lab in the Armory. Or the undergraduate library Media Commons. And put on these headsets, so they don't have to own the headsets themselves. And watch three to five minute videos each week. And that's actually one of the assigned readings, so to speak, for each week.

So the content that students are learning is focused around things very relevant to their own lives, but then also the way in which we're delivering it, I think, it's pretty interesting and unique. This is the only class that I know of that is using VR consistently at any big 10 university.

VINCE LARA: That's terrific. Thanks so much for your time, Matt.

MATT BROWNING: Thank you, Vince.

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