New York State School Boards Association

'Wearable technology' offers new ways to travel, perform experiments

by Stephanie Gouss

On Board Online • November 28, 2016

By Stephanie Gouss
Special Correspondent

Field trips and science labs just aren't the same since virtual reality applications have entered the classroom.

With simple "augmented glasses" or "fully immersive" applications such as goggles and tabletop/screen-based virtual reality, students can get a fish-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef, visit the Great Wall of China or shadow an electrical engineer.

The "wow" factor is big for products such as zSpace, which offers apps that enable students to build molecules in virtual space, get a 3-D view of the human anatomy and test Newton's laws.

Last fall, the Tuckahoe school district in Westchester County piloted a program using the Google Cardboard Expedition application. Middle school students took field trips to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. and high school students did an Internet-assisted visit to Verona, Italy. Students reacted well to these lessons, according to Catherine Gosmer, one of the district's peer tech coaches.

Once the glasses were off (they were worn for approximately 15 minutes), both classes were able to easily articulate what they learned through this virtual reality experience, she said. It should be noted that younger students did mention being a little dizzy.

According to Gosmer, virtual reality devices are redefining learning as "they enhance instruction and make the learning experience come to life." She says that using the devices illustrates the power of technology to enhance learning experiences. They allow students to collaborate in real time and are a complement to the Chromebooks that the district began using in classrooms last year. "They're attention grabbers," she said.

The Newburgh school district plans to pilot the program in early 2017 in its K-5 STEAM Academy at Vails Gate School. Noting that the possibilities for use of devices such as Google Cardboard are endless, discussions in this large, urban district have largely focused on staff being able to monitor student motion and rhythm in music and physical education settings. "Using these devices opens up a whole new world for our scholars that classroom lessons and textbooks cannot," said Roberto Padilla, superintendent of schools.

At NYSSBA's 97th Annual Convention & Education Expo in Buffalo in October, board members who visited vendor booths couldn't get enough of zSpace, a virtual reality company whose slogan is "The Ultimate Learning Experience: See It to Believe It." They also flocked to the booth of Sensavis 3D, whose tagline is shorter: "Revolutionizing Education."

Convention attendees got a district's perspective on virtual reality learning apps when officials from the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district on Long Island explained how they are using a zSpace app called Franklin's Lab to provide an enhanced laboratory experience. It's a virtual workspace with wires, resistors, LEDs, a light bulb and motor that students can use to build circuits and mechanical devices. Each learning activity, such as troubleshooting a circuit, is tied to a national or state learning standard.

"Our sixth-graders are using Franklin's Lab and going back into the tech shops and actually designing their own electricity boards," said Joyce Barry, the district's chair of science, research and technology. "Then they're going to go back to zSpace and 'create' these boards" in a virtual space, she said. Students couldn't do the same in real life because "we would never be able to afford (it) or allow them to do it because of safety reasons."

It's a new learning landscape for teachers as well as students. Professional development happens online, on demand, and face to face. Tuckahoe and Newburgh technology staff regularly attend conferences that focus on topics such as developing coherent and collaborative curricula, feedback systems and the measuring of quality and impact of learning via virtual reality.

The good news is that "wearable technology" is not all that costly. Google Cardboard kits can be purchased for as little as $15.

Not that you can't spend a lot more. Google just introduced a new Daydream View headset that works with smart phones. It retails for $79.

District leaders say they are applying for grants and looking to their district foundations for assistance as they move from pilot project to larger scale use of virtual reality.

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