Virtual Reality Makes Its Way Into More Classrooms

Virtual Reality Makes Its Way Into More Classrooms
November 9, 2017

DANFORTH, Maine (WABI) - The state education budget sets aside about $13.5 million for classroom technology, like computers.


A few schools in Maine are turning to other funding to experiment with the next phase of that technology.


East Grand School in Danforth in Washington County is one of them


It's made up of just 150 students from pre-k to high school.


Thanks in part to a major grant, their world just got bigger - a lot bigger.


Jennifer Gilman has spent her career teaching at East Grand School.


"I'm going to introduce what's going on in a moment."


She says there's a lot to love about it. But it can also be limiting.


"So we live in a very remote, rural area. A lot of our students don't get out. They haven't been to Lincoln, they haven't been to Bangor. We're in this isolated environment. You know Walmart's an hour away, just a Walmart."


"We're going down to the VR lab. When I come back, I'm going to write up an assignment for you."


This room is about to change that.


Through a $10,000 Kepware grant from a software development company in Portland, Gilman has brought virtual reality to East Grand.


She was first exposed to it at The Maine Center for Research in STEM Education.


"When I went to that virtual world I knew this could be the place where the students could still feel safe in their school but see the outside world. And see what could be there for them."


Just this month, two HTC Vive systems were installed, with help from UMaine's IMRE lab.


"They're coming out with new things all of the time for us."


Gilman's son Thomas is part of the school's Dream Team that set up the equipment.


"Yeah, pretty sweet. Definitely better than the stuff that we have at the house."


They are now learning how VR programs can apply to everyday education.


"A plane is such an abstract concept and now students can actually see that."


"We have some students that are interested in forestry," says Thomas Gilman. "So we downloaded an application where they were able to go in the neighborhood and use a chainsaw to clear-cut for members in the area."


"We're a small school in a small town. To have this kind of technology at our fingertips, it's extraordinary. It's awesome!"


Tenth grader Bobby Massey is also on the Dream Team, which will teach the teachers how to use VR.


"It won't just be having somebody talk at you and you jotting notes down and looking back at it and reciting it," says Massey."It'll be more like I learned this because I experienced it, not because I was told it."


7th grader Emma Davis' favorite subject is science. She was mesmerized by VR anatomy.


"I think it's actually way cool because on the skeleton that you have in your room, you can see all the bones and stuff, but you can't see inside and what it looks like," says Davis. "So looking at it on the virtual reality, that's like really cool - to see all of your organs and stuff."


Technology Coordinator Jim Hersey says the plan is to eventually expose elementary school students to the technology, too.


"I saw student earlier today drawing all of the way around her. 360-degrees. So she was inside her painting when she was making it."


"What can I do with that that I can't do anything else? You can look at things at the molecular level," says Gilman. "You could look at CT scans of animals. You can break DNA down. We don't have a lab, we don't have a lot of things other schools have. And now we'll have access to things that other schools can't even think about."


Gilman hopes as VR in the classroom grows, the students in her school will, too.


"To think about my students being able to fly to Venice and to go to Manhattan. And land on the streets and look around. And go to museums and see sculptures, that's really awesome."


"And then you're in the real world, again! Hahaha!


Virtual reality is so new, an Education Department spokesperson could only tell me of three public schools experimenting with it.


But a VR Expo in Augusta over the summer attracted more than 100 educators.


So, the technology will likely work its way into more classrooms. 

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