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Virtual reality offers real rewards in education

How cutting-edge VR technology brings K12 career development to life
  • TECH PREP—Building digital roller coasters and designing other prototypes introduces elementary students in Utica Community Schools in Michigan, above, to the virtual reality tools that they will likely use in college and their future careers in local industry.
  • ADVANCED ANATOMY—Students at Northeast Regional Vocational High School in Massachusetts explore the intricacies of the human body on zSpace’s virtual reality platform. They can even perform dissections.
  • STAR POWER—VR platforms allow students to do the impossible, such as closely examining the sun and other objects they would never otherwise learn about or encounter in life.

In four Utica Community elementary schools in metro Detroit, students as young as 10 manipulate and pull apart the organs of the body, build roller coasters, and design and test 3D prototypes.

The students wear 3D glasses on their heads; in their hands, they hold specialized styluses to maneuver digital objects projected in space in front of them.

The students can twist, turn and take apart the objects—even a virtual human heart. They can experiment, adapt and revise.

The roller coaster program, for instance, lets them change the gravitational pull in their virtual world and tweak their designs so the cars and the tracks provide a thrilling, if imaginary, ride.

It’s an immersive experience that captures students’ attention and ignites their imaginations. It also prepares them for future careers. “One of the reasons we wanted to introduce virtual reality to our students is because we sit in the heart of the defense and automotive industries,” says Christine Johns, superintendent of Utica Community Schools.

“Industry is already using these tools to design the dashboard of a car, for example,” she adds.

The architecture, construction, engineering and health science industries already use virtual reality, and educators throughout the country are beginning to consider ways to introduce virtual, augmented and mixed reality (see sidebar “Three realities”) to prepare students for college and the workforce.

“It’s important to teach students early how to interact and engage with this technology because it’s going to be part of their professional lives,” says Mark Cheben, global marketing director of EON Reality, a company that has developed professional VR training modules.

Familiarity and comfort with VR “is a marketable skill right out of school,” Cheben adds.

Here’s a look at how school districts use virtual reality at the elementary, middle and high school levels to prepare students for their future academic and professional lives.

Three realities

Augmented Reality (AR): Digital content overlaid on a real-world environment. A person can see their physical surroundings, as well as computer-generated images. The recently popular game Pokemon Go is an example of augmented reality.

Elementary exploration

While most districts opt to introduce virtual reality in high school, Utica Community Schools decided to pilot zSpace—a unique form of screen-based virtual reality—to engage elementary students in activities.

“We started with elementary students because they have natural curiosity,” Johns says, adding that children whose interest in STEM is sparked early are more likely to pursue careers in those fields.

Beginning at the elementary level can also lay the groundwork for a robust VR program at the high school level. Lessons learned will guide Utica administrators in scaling up the district’s VR program.

One lesson: it might be more productive to dedicate a highly trained teacher to the virtual reality lab, rather than trying to get rotating classroom teachers up to speed with the technology.

Three realities (cont.)

Virtual Reality (VR): Immersion in a digitally created, simulated environment. A person can no longer see their actual physical surroundings, and instead sees and experiences images, sounds and, in some cases, tactile sensations generated by a computer. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are two virtual reality systems.

Middle school makers

Google Expeditions—virtual field trips students can experience via inexpensive Google Cardboard viewers—can expand students’ career aspirations. A virtual field trip to a coral reef or the International Space Station provides insights into jobs students may not have considered.

“Students can actually see the tools of the trade and see what professionals are working with, what they are making,” says Janice Mak, STEM educator and instructional coach at Paradise Valley School District in Arizona. “That’s definitely eye-opening.”

At the Dawson School in Lafayette, Colorado, seventh- and eighth-graders use VR in architecture and design. Professional architects designed an addition to the independent school and shared it with students and instructors. Architects and Dawson students can work with the plans virtually, in 3D, using Prospect by IrisVR software and an HTC Vive headset.

Equipped with a VR headset, “you can go inside” the design, says Jeff Ellenbogen, Dawson’s director of information technology. This allows students to develop a better understanding of design in a 3D space—a skill that’s notoriously difficult to develop with 2D tools.

Eventually, Ellenbogen plans to have students create their own designs, explore them in Prospect and tweak them as necessary.

Three realities (cont.)

Mixed Reality: A merging of real and virtual worlds. A person sees their physical environment, as well as 3D digital objects that are anchored to points in the physical world. Microsoft Hololens is an example of a mixed reality system.

High school career prep

In high school, VR is most commonly found in health sciences courses. Students in the health assisting program at Northeast Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield, Massachusetts, use zSpace to examine the intricacies of the human body, says Carla Scuzzarella, deputy director and principal.

High school students typically don’t dissect human cadavers, but with zSpace, they can explore the body’s musculature, skeleton, circulatory system, lungs, brain, nervous system and digestive system in detail. They can separate the organs, rotate them in space and put them back again.

And unlike physical dissections that require specialized tools and storage, virtual dissections can be performed again and again.

In other places, high school students are leading the way in VR design. At Palmer High School in Colorado Springs School District 11, Sean Wybrant (the state’s teacher of the year) prepares students for careers as VR developers. One student creates a virtual periodic table that users can shuffle through via AR.

Another has created a virtual gallery of students’ digital artwork that can be viewed with an Oculus Rift. And a team of students is designing a mixed-reality game for the Microsoft Hololens headset that, with a blending of the virtual and the real, will teach players about light.

Wybrant says that neither he nor his students had any previous VR programming experience. They’ve been learning together via trial and error, and outreach to experts. “Even if virtual reality isn’t a space where you feel comfortable,” Wybrant says, “your discomfort can’t be the thing that prevents kids from reaching their potential.”


Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.