Utica students expand learning through virtual reality

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Tyler Anderson points his stylus at the computer screen and pulls apart different sections of the brain. There’s the frontal lobe and over there is the temporal lobe.

With the 3-D glasses, the brain pops off the screen and is right in one’s face.

It’s part of an initiative in the Utica Community Schools District that brings virtual reality labs to four elementary schools — Crissman, Monfort, Schwarzkoff and Ebeling. They are the first schools in Michigan to use the newly opened zSpace virtual reality labs, allowing students to collaborate on activities ranging from exploring the inner workings of the human heart to designing and building circuit boards or examining the physics of the world’s tallest buildings.

Tyler, 10, who is in the fifth grade at Ebeling, was dissecting a heart. And he says it will help him in his future endeavors.

“If I want to become a doctor, now I can do all these things on a computer so I can be a really good doctor when I grow up,” he said.

Asked if he would like to become a doctor, he replied: “Now I might.”

Superintendent Christine Johns stood in a classroom at Ebeling, where students held stylus pens and wore 3-D glasses yanking wings off of bugs and pulling the wings right off the screen. It was the futuristic version of old school frog dissections in biology class without the actual frogs.

“This digital content is really what sets the standards the state is asking us to learn,” Johns said. “Instead of traditional learning, students are being engaged and able to interact and run various tests and trials as they experiment. This is the future of learning and the future of jobs.”

Johns said medical students are using similar programs, where virtual cadavers replace actual bodies.

District spokesman Tim McAvoy said the zSpace program costs $460,000 for four schools, with $400,000 coming from a 2009 bond issue.

Students can study physical science, Earth and space science, life science, social science, mathematics and art and design. Students and teachers can create experiments not possible in the classroom, modify their design and reach a deeper level of knowledge.

Fourth-grader Skylar Mack, 9, used her stylus to gently pull the virtual wings off of a virtual bug.

“It’s kind of weird, but it’s also fun,” she said.

Sixth-grader Braylon Hatchett, 12, created a dog animation.

“I created this dog, Tomar, from my fantasy writing class, based on my real dog, Tommy,” he said, making the dog bounce around on the screen, and pulling out sections of the dog’s cheeks to make weird mumps-like puffs.

“It’s very helpful to me, because I can envision things my own way and create it the way I would like. This also helps because I’d like to be an animator one day.”

Paul Kellenberger, chief executive officer of zSpace, said the program has been in the market for three years and is being used in 250 school districts across the country and 130 universities.

“We’re taking virtual reality and tying it to the classroom,” he said. “Virtual reality is viewed as the next big wave in terms of human interaction in computing.”

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