February 7, 2017

Mariner Middle students explore world with virtual reality

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Courtney Black, a science teacher at Mariner Middle School, is taking her students on virtual reality field trips.

Pamela McCabe, pmccabe@news-press.com

Field trips are a great complement to the lessons taught in school, but planning a classroom get-away to a museum, historical site or an ecological playground can be both time consuming and expensive.

But Courtney Black has found a way to show her students the world without ever leaving Mariner Middle School.

That’s because she has signed on to use a software program called Nearpod, a company that offers lesson plans that meet state requirements and filters the information to kids via smartphones, tablets and classroom computers.

Only Black takes it a step farther.

She applied for and received a grant to purchase a set of five VR, or virtual reality, headsets — giving her students a 360-degree, up-close-and-personal view of whatever they are studying.

On Friday, this technology introduced a class of eighth graders to parrotfish swimming around a coral reef, a feeding frenzy of seagulls just above the ocean and the various animals one might see in a Chinese forest or atop the crater of a volcano.

The class was reviewing ecosystems and using the devices to bring their lesson to life by pinpointing which animals would rank at the top of the food chain.

With the VR goggles on, students left their chairs and walked around the room, trying to get as close as possible to the 3-D scenery displayed before them.

One of them was Alexis St. Clare, 13.

“There’s a whole bunch of seagulls jumping in the water,” she explained, tilting her head to the left, to the right and then up and down. “They look like they’re diving down to get bait, and I see fish in the water.”

Suddenly, she reached her hand out in front of her face. “There’s a bird flying right there,” she exclaimed. “There’s like a hundred birds.”

Black was first introduced to Nearpod by Leslie Cornwell, a friend and teacher at Cape High School. After exploring the website, Black applied for a school license and a grant for the VR, or virtual reality, goggles.

She estimates that the license and VR headsets cost about $2,000. Since adding the technology to her classroom this school year, Black has seen a big change in her students’ interest in learning.

“Every single student has the option to be engaged in some way, shape or form, whether they are doing an activity or watching a video, or if they have the VR viewers on and are actually exploring the surroundings of the VR field trip,” she said. “We have the capability of going to the surface of Mars or the moon and down to coral reefs. So it’s really, really impressive.”

Because there are only five viewers in the room, students have to wait their turn for the googles. But that doesn’t mean learning has stopped.

Black continues with her regular instruction, and students follow along with the scenery with the help of the classroom interactive board and their Chromebooks.

After handing off her VR viewer to a classmate, Caitlyn Fisher said the experience reminded her of snorkeling.

“It makes it so it’s a real experience, and just really in-depth — as if you are really there,” she said.

Classmate Yonathon Dervil, 14, agreed.

“It gives you like a virtual scene and a 360 view so you can see everything," he said. "It’s pretty cool."

And the benefits go beyond Black's 172 students, as the VR goggles and software are available to other classes and departments on campus.

“You can visit Langston Hughes’ homes, you can visit all of the national monuments. Every single subject has the opportunity to take a virtual field trip without the expense of hiring a bus and taking everyone to Washington, D.C., so it’s really a fantastic opportunity,” Black said.

Ariana Estrada, 14, hopes the trend catches on in some of her other classes.

“Maybe in history,” she said, adding that it would be great “to see historical events happening in front of you.”

As for Black, she can’t wait to use the VR headsets for field trips in the New Year.

“I am not even staying on this planet anymore,” she said with a laugh. “Literally.”

Connect with this reporter: @NP_pstaik (Twitter).

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