Jonah Firestone explores the future of education from a utilitarian laboratory.
The only equipment in the lab on the second floor of the Washington State University Tri-Cities library are two monitors connected to high-end computers.
But from there, with the help of a headset, you can circle the Earth, fight zombies or create 3-D art.
Firestone, an assistant professor of science education, wants to use the equipment to explore ways that virtual reality can help students, teachers and the education process.
“The lab is designed to look at the melding of virtual and augmented reality into education,” he said.
The Virtual Integrated Technology for Assessment Learning laboratory opened recently with the help of a $50,000 grant from the WSU Tri-Cities chancellor’s office.
Firestone, who spent 20 years teaching in public and private schools, said he became more interested in the role of technological advances in the classroom during his career. Virtual reality is just the latest form of computer technology to make its way into classrooms.
One of Firestone’s first jobs was teaching at an Arizona alternative school where students used computers for all of their work, including chemistry labs.
“If you think back to The Oregon Trail (computer game) … That’s still a simulation,” he said, referring to the educational program that became a fixture in classrooms across the nation in the mid- to late 80s. “So having students on computers playing games that are educational or doing simulations has been pretty common.”
Students can use the virtual reality goggles for views they normally wouldn’t get a chance to see. For instance, they could take a virtual trip to a museum or fly in a World War II-era Zero.
Another piece of equipment, the Microsoft HoloLens, allows students to see the real world while projecting images onto the screen. This augmented reality is becoming more popular following the success of the game Pokemon Go.
Researchers are looking at using the HoloLens to create a mobile encyclopedia, where people could look at an item and get information about it.
The HoloLens can be set up to tell you about the item at the same time you’re looking at it.
The viewers also allows future teachers to visit neighborhoods and homes they might not get the chance to.
Firestone also is adding a camera that can film in 360 degrees. He suggested students could take the camera into their homes and give teachers a chance to visit a home remotely.
“It’s difficult if you’re a teacher who lives in Richland, but your school is in Pasco. You don’t go to downtown Pasco very often, but you can do it virtually,” he said.
While the equipment can bolster student knowledge, Firestone and his colleagues in Pullman also want to research how people learn.
“A lot of education and a lot of science teaching and STEM is based on this idea that if I’m saying something, then you must be learning it,” he said.
Now researchers can use infrared light to measure the oxygen in a student’s frontal lobe. The idea is the higher the oxygen level, the more a person is thinking.
Then, they can test different learning environments to see if they are more or less conducive to learning, he said.
And as the technology becomes better and less expensive, Firestone expects more will make its way into classrooms. Then, more developers are likely to write more programs for the technology.
For now, he wants teachers, researchers and students to find ways to incorporate the equipment into their work.
“The more people that know about it, the more people that use it, the better it is,” he said. “I’m talking to psychology, to art, to business, … I want them to come in here and figure out what they can do with it. Then we’ll work on it and hopefully bend it to education.”