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Virtual reality is gateway to the world for students

Virtual reality is gateway to the world for students

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CLAREMONT – What student wouldn’t want to take a tour down the Great Wall of China or around the Great Pyramid of Giza in the first week of school?

Kristen Davis’s sixth grade class at Claremont Elementary School got to do both Wednesday, getting up close to the ancient landmarks during a virtual reality session using the Google Expeditions app.

The students used android phones combined with a virtual reality headset to experience immersive virtual trips in both countries. Google Expeditions also allows users to visit a variety of other places and environments from diving underwater with sharks to even visiting outer space, according to Google.

The Catawba County Schools system purchased 30 android phones and 30 virtual reality headsets for the new school year with a total cost of $10,000. The package also came with a wireless router and a teacher tablet. The app is free.

Davis teaches ancient civilizations to her classes so the idea of being able to take her students on a tour of the pyramids in Egypt or the Great Wall in China was one she was quick to volunteer to do.

“We’ve always struggled finding social studies field trips for the kids in North Carolina because there’s nothing that relates to those ancient civilizations,” Davis said. “Sometimes Discovery Place in Charlotte might have an exhibit or the history museum in Raleigh but they’re not constant exhibits so we may luck out one year, but I can’t count on it.”

She called the Google Expeditions app “phenomenally built for her instruction.”

“There is Rome. There’s Greece. There’s China. There’s India. There’s Egypt which are all the major civilizations that we touch on,” Davis said. “Obviously, it’s technology, so I knew it would grab their attention, and I knew it would be more inviting and more invigorating than to pull up pictures and say, ‘here’s the great Sphinx’ because they actually feel like they’re right there and they even reach out to try and touch it.”

Catawba County Schools Chief Technology Officer Marty Sharpe was the driving force behind the system getting the new technology. He started with a pilot program last year with just few units, taking it to different schools to gauge the interest in students and teachers.

“We wanted to create a fun tool for students but that also had a correlation to the standards we teach,” Sharpe said. “We don’t want to make students consumers of this technology. Our goal is to make connection with lessons and that was a requirement for teachers requesting to bring it into their classrooms. They needed to show how it connected to their lesson plan.”

He's looking forward to taking the devices into as many schools as he can this year.

Davis clearly had no problem keeping her students engaged in the lesson she was teaching Wednesday.

“Just seeing they’re general reaction, they’re eager to answer my questions and because they’re answering them correctly, I know they’re hearing me when I give them the information,” Davis said.

It’s the difference from being told the Great Pyramid is 481 feet tall and standing next to the structure and looking up at how high it is.

“They’re hearing me and experiencing it and they’re not just looking at a projector screen…this is more invigorating,” Davis said.

Her goal for the class, using the equipment for the first time, was to peak their interest while still feeding the students content about the Great Pyramid and the Great Wall of China.

“It gives them a good geological idea and it will build that background, so when I do finally teach Egypt and China, they’ll have a direct connection to it and they’ll be able to pull from that and it’s a shared experience,” Davis said. “When I call on that later in the semester, they’ll all be on the same page.”

She would like to check out the units three to four times a semester.

Claremont Elementary School’s Principal Jessica Mays saw the use of virtual reality in the classroom as a natural extension of how comfortable kids are these days with technology.

“For them everything is technology driven and to be able to take a student in North Carolina to Egypt to see a pyramid without leaving the classroom is just amazing and some of these kids will never get to see these things,” Mays said. “Some of us as adults will never be able to visit these places.

“As our staff becomes more comfortable with the new technology, I definitely see this being very common in our classrooms.”

Sixth-grader Aaron Knott said the experience was like being on a roller coaster when the class started its tour of pyramids in Egypt.

“Then Ms. Davis started telling us what to look for in the characteristics of the pyramids,” Knott said. “Then we learned what kings were buried in each one, tell us how they would bury their riches with them for the afterlife...it just looked so real.”

Anjalee Vang already knew about virtual reality headsets from gaming videos on youtube.

“Once Ms. Davis told us what it was, I was happy to try it out,” she said.

The Great Wall of China was her favorite destination Wednesday. The virtual reality tour impressed on her the sheer size of the structure.

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