Students at the Winona Middle School use ClassVR headsets for three-dimensional tours of different countries. The headsets are part of WMS’s new virtual-reality program.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
At the Winona Middle School (WMS), students now have the chance to go beyond textbooks and videos in studying their subjects. With the help of a new set of virtual reality (VR) headsets, WMS students can travel the world and get up close and personal to things they could have never dreamed of.
Last year, technology integrationist Jennifer Snook was awarded a $5,000 Dare to Dream grant from the Foundation for Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) to purchase a set of ClassVR headsets for the middle school. According to Snook, she wanted to find a way to incorporate the quickly-growing technology of virtual and augmented reality into the classroom, and these headsets made it possible.
“As technology integrationists, we’re always looking for additional ways to engage the students, and give them different ways to look at learning materials. This is something that is very immersive. You are in there,” Snook said.
The headsets are shared across the school, Snook explained, with teachers requesting sessions and content to match students’ current curriculum. Using ClassVR’s extensive library of videos, Snook curates and edits content for teachers one by one, whether it’s a tour of France or a look at an American Revolution battlefield.
“I have more business than I can handle right now,” she joked. “It’s really exciting, and it’s gone really well.”
Trisha Johnson teaches seventh-grade science at WMS and, recently, she was teaching a unit on human anatomy and the functions of the human body. She used the headsets to let students shrink down and go inside a person, getting a close look at everything from the stomach to the lungs.
“We had shown them pictures of what organs look like, but they’re all in 2D. For them to go inside the body to see something in 3D, and see the depth of something and how things are connected, it gives them more of an idea for the intricacies that are involved,” Johnson said.
She also explained that being able to shrink down gives them an interesting perspective on the processes that they wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, and other units could use the programs for similar purposes. For instance, in earth science, the headsets could have children standing on top of a massive glacier or looking down into the Grand Canyon, and give them the ability to understand the sheer scale of the planet’s many geological wonders.
“Pictures don’t really do it justice. You can see some of those details that you wouldn’t be able to see in a picture,” Johnson said.
Aside from just visiting places and doing deep dives into specific topics, Johnson said the headsets are also useful in capturing students’ attentions. In the few times she has used the headsets, students have always had very positive reactions, with smiles strewn across their faces. While some may still prefer to read about a subject in a textbook or watch a video, VR allows students who want a more hands-on approach to learning to have it.
“The more the kids get to see things in different ways and learn it, the more they’ll understand it. It gives another way to present that information to try and catch all those learners,” Johnson said. “I think what it does is it makes that experience completely personal. It makes it feel like you are the only person there. To be in there and immerse yourself in there is really kind of cool.”
It’s not just content that is available with the service, either. Snook explained that along with the headsets, a 360-degree camera was also acquired, which in turn will let educators create content specifically for their classes and curriculum.
“People are creating so much now with VR and 360-degree video, and we bought a camera so we can shoot videos in [360 degrees] and put them right onto the headsets, too,” Snook explained.
The headsets have only been in use since the end of last year, but already teachers across the school have taken a liking to them, Snook explained. While the program is still new, the future of virtual-reality technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, which will in turn allow even more interesting integrations into the classroom.
“I think what would be next is looking at different kinds of software to get kids in there. For example, one software, Vspace, lets students manipulate objects in a 3D space,” Snook said. “Instead of viewing, they’re going to create or manipulate. We’re constantly looking for ways to just add to and enhance the curriculum, and look at ways to bring it more to life than just a textbook or a YouTube video.”