Virtual reality hits the classroom with oohs and aahs - The Buffalo News

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Virtual reality hits the classroom with oohs and aahs

When Nykari Walker strapped the virtual-reality headset over his eyes, he got a history lesson that he won’t soon forget.

As the 12-year-old peered into the goggles, he became immersed in a computer-generated, three-dimensional simulation of the Apollo 11 space mission.

He oohed during the simulated elevator ride to the top of the rocket.

He aahed at the earth below, as he gazed through a virtual window of the command module.

And as he scanned the surface of the moon, a smile ran across his face.

Welcome to the next generation of technology for the classroom.

“That was so fun,” Nykari said afterward. “It really felt like I was on the moon. I want to keep doing this for the rest of the day.”

As the market grows, virtual reality is becoming an intriguing educational tool for schools like Enterprise Charter School on Oak Street, where Nykari and classmates recently got a sneak peek of what’s in store for them.

Want to walk with the dinosaurs?

Why not take a trip to the bottom of the ocean?

How about standing at the center of the solar system and touching the sun?

Its possibilities for the classroom are endless.

“We’re at a point right now where we’re really trying to understand what this can do for kids,” said Richard Lamb, an associate professor of learning and instruction in the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education.

Lamb is director of the university’s Neurocognition Science Laboratory on the North Campus in Amherst, home to everything virtual reality.

He will be training teachers at Enterprise on how best to use the technology as a classroom tool, but he’ll also be observing how virtual reality affects student learning and cognition – his area of expertise.

When virtual reality is tied with traditional classroom teaching, student engagement goes up, as does critical thinking and comprehension, Lamb’s research suggests.

In fact, one of his studies examined the complexity of student writing and showed a deeper level of understanding among those exposed to material through virtual reality, as opposed to those who learned only from a textbook.

“The conclusion was essentially that virtual reality should be a primer for other types of traditional education,” Lamb said. “By exposing students early on, the teacher can always refer back to that experience with virtual reality.”

There’s still little research on the subject, and while virtual reality is growing in popularity it’s going to take awhile before the technology becomes ubiquitous in homes and classrooms, Lamb said. The high-end headgear, with all the accessories, can run between $2,000 to $3,000, he said.

Erie 1 BOCES is offering a pilot program this spring to local school districts interested in testing out the technology for use in the classroom, said Michelle Okal-Frink, director of instructional technology, research and innovation for BOCES.

“Everyone is investigating, but it’s so very new for schools at this time,” she said.

Buffalo Public Schools appears to be at the forefront, adding virtual-reality equipment at eight of its schools this year with the goal of creating virtual labs in buildings across the district, said Sanjay Gilani, chief technology officer for the district.

“Science was never meant to be taught one dimensionally. It was always meant to be taught in 3-D,” Gilani said. “That’s what this does.”

Enterprise – home to more than 400 students in grades kindergarten through eighth – was awarded a $60,000 grant from its neighbor, Catholic Health System, which will pay for the state-of-the-art virtual-reality equipment.

More than 90 percent of students at Enterprise are considered economically disadvantaged, according to state data, and the school wanted something to help broaden their experiences, expand their horizons, said Julie Schwab, the charter’s superintendent.

“We can’t take them to NASA, but we can bring NASA to them,” said Lynn Shanahan, a UB professor on leave to serve as an associate superintendent at Enterprise.

On a recent morning, Lamb was in the school’s computer lab introducing virtual reality to a group of four seventh-graders, including Nykari.

Their teacher – Lamb’s wife, Rebekah – has been talking to the class about the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. The class was planning a field trip to see the movie, “Hidden Figures,” based on a true story about a team of African-American women who helped NASA launch its first successful space mission.

To give them more historical context, Lamb showed the Apollo 11 mission in virtual reality.

Corey Hornsby waited anxiously for his turn, and when he finally put on the goggles, Corey found himself inside the cabin of the lunar module that landed in the Sea of Tranquility.

“It was awesome,” said Corey, 12. “It felt like I was there.”

Autumn Brown, 12, who aspires to be surgeon, took a virtual tour through the blood stream, watching – with mouth agape – as the body fended off dangerous viruses.

“It was kind of interesting – and kind of scary at the same time,” Autumn said.

And when Kalyana Gonzalez got her first chance to experience virtual reality, she took a trip back to the prehistoric era. The 12-year-old jumped in her chair when she encountered a virtual dragonfly.

“The dragonflies you see are about the size of a bird,” Lamb told her.

“Dang,” she murmured aloud.

“Can you imagine trying to squash one that big?” Lamb asked.

The kids, visibly excited, peppered Lamb with questions and chattered among themselves.

“From a teaching perspective, that’s awesome,” Lamb commented to a reporter, “because that’s where the learning is happening.”

Nykari raised his hand.

“Mister,” Nykari asked Lamb, “can we come back here after lunch?”

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