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VR zSpace

District sees massive STEM gains with VR


Introducing a virtual world to the students of Nassau County has led to interest in STEM careers, engagement.

The students at Franklin Square Union Free School District in Nassau County, New York, had already studied the layers of the earth. They’d seen a video, discussed the concept, and even taken apart a physical class model. But when they worked with a virtual earth in zSpace, you could hear the “wows” and “whoahs” all over the classroom. They lifted the virtual earth from the screen and turned it around to see it from all sides. They peeled off the earth’s rocky crust, and used virtual tools to measure the depth of each layer.

“I could tell by their reactions and responses that they had a better understanding of layers,” said John Trotta, assistant principal at Polk Street School, one of the district’s three elementary schools. “It goes back to visualization. You can’t see the actual layers of the earth, but this is as close to a hands-on experience as possible. It brings the concept to life.”

zSpace is a virtual reality (VR) system used for STEM education. Unlike hardware systems that require headsets, zSpace is screen-based. Students and teachers use a custom stylus to pick up and manipulate items from a screen. Lightweight glasses transform that item into a 3D object that can be seen by everyone wearing the glasses, or cast onto a screen for the class to view.

A Brief Video on zSpace VR in Education

VR Specifically for Education

VR is making its way into education, and it may even be leapfrogging consumer use. While headset-based systems like Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive are a lot of fun, they’re mainly used for gaming, and not well suited for classroom use because they isolate students from the outside world, and from each other.

A screen-based solution, such as zSpace, seems more appropriate for the classroom. It’s already in more than 400 school districts across the globe, as students are quickly learning to live in a virtually enhanced world.

(Next page: How VR is enhancing STEM learning at Franklin Square)

Students are Asking about STEM Careers

At Franklin Square, each of the district’s three K-6 schools has a lab of 12 zSpace all-in-one computers.  Every classroom goes into the lab at least once a week for a STEM lesson that supports whatever they’re learning in the classroom–earth science, physical science, biology, mathematics, engineering, and even social science.

Maura Gallagher, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Franklin Square, explained how the district has made some changes since its first year with zSpace.

“We had fewer units in year one, so we had about three students to a computer. One of them would usually tune out,” said Gallagher. “Now, we have enough units to have a 2:1 ratio of zSpace units per student.  This configuration encourages collaboration and cooperative learning. Kids are taking turns and having discussions.”

Gallagher was both surprised and thrilled that VR was prompting students to be more curious about what STEM subjects are and how they might be useful in their lives.

“It’s opening doors for them. This is a foundational time in their educational lives, and they’re already starting to make connections between what they’re learning with zSpace and how they can apply these concepts in real life,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard students this young spontaneously ask about careers in fields like botany or medicine.”

Teachers are Excited, Too

Right now, the district’s STEM teacher is doing most of the work with the students and the zSpace lab, but Gallagher and Trotta say that the possibilities have ignited the teachers’ imaginations as well.

“The other week, we had a teacher go to the zSpace lab to look at elephant vertebrae,” said Trotta. “I’ve also seen social studies teachers use it to demonstrate the size and shape of ancient objects. zSpace has a library of items that includes things like the first printing press and the Parthenon. If you can’t see those things in real life, you can see them in zSpace.”

As classroom teachers begin to plan more lessons that include zSpace, they can use the existing lesson plans that are included with the zSpace software, or they can easily modify lessons. All projects and activities are aligned with both Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The educators, parents and students at Franklin Square consider their first foray into VR a success, and plan to continue the program, knowing that VR will continue to become more commonplace in our everyday lives.

“I wish I would have had this as an elementary student,” said Trotta. “It would have been a lot easier to learn some difficult concepts. Luckily, today’s students have the tools to have a hands-on experience with just about anything, from cells to planets. A textbook can’t bring that to life. It’s a whole different level of engagement.”

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