How Virtual Reality Helps This N.Y. School District Prepare Students for...

21st Century Skills

How Virtual Reality Helps This N.Y. School District Prepare Students for Their Future

from zSpace

By Wendy McMahon     Aug 28, 2017

How Virtual Reality Helps This N.Y. School District Prepare Students for Their Future

In 2014 Jill Gierasch could see the writing on the wall—students from her New York school district were saturated in technology at home, but that wasn’t the case at school. Engagement in technology-free classes was waning and while the deputy superintendent for Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District (POB) didn’t want students using technology just for the sake of technology—she wanted her schools and students to be future-ready.

So, when an e-mail about virtual reality devices from zSpace arrived in Gierasch’s inbox, the proverbial lightbulb went on above her head.

Three years later, Gierasch and her staff are pioneers in the world of VR for education. They boast three mobile VR labs and one stationary VR lab for the district’s four elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. Nearby districts and schools regularly look to POB for advice and leadership when it comes to implementing VR and using the technology to engage and teach students.

“Educational leaders have a challenge to keep students excited and wanting to come to school,” explains Gierasch. “If students have all this technology at home, why would they want to come to school and do a paper-pencil task? Their world is technology right now. We need to keep up with them.”

Choose carefully

By 2025 an estimated 15 million students will be using VR, but Gierasch isn’t interested in following the latest trends. She’s careful to stress that when choosing technology, educators need to consider whether a tool is a fad or something that can prepare students for the future.

“In this case, I do think virtual reality is the future—they are using VR in the automotive industry, and to teach medical students,” says Gierasch. She wishes she was able to bring in more guest speakers to make those connections to real-world professions, “but using these VR devices provides students with an opportunity to see into the future a little bit.”

Gierasch references education reform authority Michael Fullan. She says his popular quote, “Pedagogy is the driver, technology is the acceleration,” perfectly captures how VR devices support learning at POB. “That really speaks of zSpace for us.”

Collaboration not isolation

One of the most important lessons Gierasch learned is that VR isn’t an isolating technology as she once suspected. Instead it actually bolsters student interaction in the right setting. That’s why each VR lab at POB purposely has only 12 VR devices—so students must work together on every task during a lesson.

“I didn’t want this to be one child, one device,” explains Gierasch. “We were very purposeful in making sure two students could be sitting at the device; we call them the driver and the passenger. One child has the stylus and both students wear the 3D glasses.” She says that students switch roles often throughout the lesson so they both have an opportunity to sit in the driver’s seat. Neither sits idle, as they constantly problem solve and bounce ideas off each other.

“To me, the most important piece of using VR is the student interaction,” explains Gierasch. “I don’t think schools provide students with enough opportunities to work on project-based activities. In this day and age, with technology, children aren’t interacting with one another as frequently as they should be. As a district, we need to create those opportunities.”

Advanced learning

While POB hasn’t conducted any formal research on the impact VR is having on students, Gierasch says the anecdotal evidence is encouraging.

Along with more student collaboration, educators like Jordan Pekor, an Advanced Placement physics teacher, report virtual STEM-related experiments lead to more advanced learning. That’s because students can use techniques and tools in POB’s VR labs that would be far too expensive or dangerous in a real-world setting.

In a sixth-grade classroom, for example, students experiment virtually with electricity boards using an app called Franklin’s Lab. They then use their new skills to design real-world electricity boards in the school’s tech shop; then it’s back to VR to improve and build on their design using virtual tools that would otherwise be too dangerous and cost-prohibitive.

Although the district initially purchased the VR devices for science, Gierasch says, “it’s really expanded exponentially in terms of the fields and subject areas it can be used for. Eventually, we want to use VR for all subjects—art and design, science, earth science studies.”

Transforming lessons

Wondering how learning differs in a VR lesson compared to traditional lessons? POB teachers say when students use VR devices for lessons, they give more detailed responses to teachers’ questions, are more engaged in classroom dialogue and ask deeper questions about their learning. “It transforms how they look at subjects or topics; they’re not just reading about it or being told, they’re experiencing it,” says Gierasch.

“They’re setting up walls and ramps, and checking out the velocity of how fast a ball is going down the ramp in a physics lesson, or feeling a beating heart in their hand and going through each of the valves in a life sciences lesson. It’s pretty evident they have a significant grasp of the content that was shared with them.”

What’s more, setting up VR experiments is easy and takes far less time and materials than traditional experiments—freeing up time for teachers to conduct experiments with students. “I used to get frustrated that we weren’t providing students with enough hands-on science experiences because of the time to set something up,” says Gierasch. “Now, all the tools are in front of the students already, so there’re really no excuses.”

And once those lessons start, says Gierasch, student engagement is off the charts.

With a traditional 35 - 40 minute lesson, says Gierasch, there will likely be a number of students off-task, not as engaged or as attentive as she would like them to be. But when the curriculum incorporates VR, she adds, it’s very different. “You’ll see the students engaged for the length of that entire lesson.”

Understanding the importance of mistakes

One of Gierasch’s favorite things about using VR in the classroom is her students’ increased willingness to make mistakes. “In virtual reality students can explore and make errors, or try something, she explains. “They say, ‘Well, that didn’t work so well. What if we did this instead?’”

Take the Leopoly 3D app, for example. Students use tools to virtually mold a bowl of clay. If things don’t go as planned, they can just hit the button and go back to square one. “I don’t think there are enough opportunities for students to realize, ‘Oh, I can start over again,’” says Gierasch. They learn that mistakes aren’t terrible; they’re something to learn from.

Gierasch says she realizes some educators might feel VR is still too futuristic for their classrooms. But that’s exactly why she thinks it’s such a great tool for schools. “I do think VR is futuristic, but it is our children’s future and it’s right around the corner.”

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