Inspired by kids’ love of video games, a Pittsburgh Catholic school plans to teach its students basic curriculum skills such as math, history, and language arts using virtual reality. But students won’t be playing games; they will be building them.

At St. Bonaventure Parish Parochial School, technology literacy education is integrated throughout the entire curriculum at every grade level. Instead of learning computer basics and software skills, however, every student in the school will increase his or her technology literacy by helping to design and build a virtual reality game.

The students “know how to [design] web pages. They know how to do PowerPoint. I wanted to take our kids … a step further. They are not afraid of technology,” said Sister John Ann Mulhern, principal of St. Bonaventure, which teaches pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students.

Most children play video games, but few know what it takes to make them, she added.

For this pilot project, teachers will use curriculum developed by a local education consulting company, called the Xavier Group Ltd. In addition to the curriculum, the Xavier Group will train teachers and provide ongoing support, as well as access to virtual reality equipment and software.

The Xavier Group will hold an assembly for students to introduce them to virtual reality gear—including headsets, gloves, and screens. They’ll also demonstrate different games, so students can get an idea of what they can create. When the students’ games are completed, the Xavier Group will lend its equipment to the school so students can try them out.

“Virtual reality [programming] to date has only been taught at the college level. The reason for that is it requires really complicated math,” said Frank X. Sowa, chairman and chief executive officer of the Xavier Group.

But even young students can grasp concepts and build games without mastering every detail in the beginning, he said. The Xavier Group and PMS Microdesign developed their own proprietary approach and custom software that allows games to be created using primitive artwork and shapes without advanced programming.

Sixteen teams—each consisting of five junior high school students paired with an entire class of students in grades pre-K through six—will compete to see who can build the best virtual reality game. Although not all of the details have been worked out, Mulhern said students will start building their games in January and have them ready for competition after Easter.

The entire team will come up with the ideas, but the older students will help the younger students implement them, Mulhern said. The games could be set in Renaissance times or in outer space. They could take the form of a detective story or a quest.

The students will have to represent their theme accurately, so they will have to conduct research, select music, write a story line, and create artwork.

The project “will span the entire curriculum,” Mulhern said. “In order to make the game really exciting, [students] will use every facet of their education.”

They’ll also have to build the game on the computer, which will require some experimentation to make it work.

To build their games, students will draw two-dimensional shapes in an inexpensive software program called Kid Pix, distributed by Riverdeep Inc. Then, they will convert the shapes to three-dimensional images by exporting them into a virtual-reality authoring program designed by PMS Microdesign Inc., called Vertigo.

Even teams consisting mainly of kindergarteners can participate in this process, because the Xavier Group will provide tools geared for their abilities. For example, to draw a shape on the computer, a kindergarten student will walk along the perimeter of the shape on a sensor mat on the floor. The mat will transfer the student’s steps onto the computer automatically.

The philosophy at St. Bonaventure is to include everyone in such a project. “Everybody benefits from it at some level,” Mulhern said.

The school regularly conducts large projects that involve all students. For example, last spring students studied the Civil War, which concluded with an entire week of dress-up theme days where all students helped reenact various parts of the Civil War.

For this project, students will learn to work together as a virtual reality development team while their teachers and the Xavier Group provide assistance.

In the process, older students will learn how to master FirstClass computer collaboration software as required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s technology standards. Students will use FirstClass to access their projects during school and to work as teams remotely from their homes or the public library after school.

The Xavier Group’s Sowa says students also will learn the processes and foundations behind virtual reality technology. “The real hook here is that they will be able to create their own game. Who knows? They might like it enough to do it on their own,” he said.

Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), agreed that teaching computer literacy is important, and “you have to teach it in a way that is real to kids.” But, he added, “I think the danger in novelty approaches is that you get so excited about the motivational factor that it might leave holes in the overall experience of computer literacy.”

It’s important for teachers to give students a knowledge base they can apply to other areas and for teachers to assess whether students have really grown, Knezek said. ISTE has defined what students should know about technology through its ongoing, nationally recognized project, the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS).

Links:

St. Bonaventure Parish Parochial School
http://www.stbonaventureparish.org/index.htm

The Xavier Group Ltd.
http://www.xaviergroup.com

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org