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Allegheny County teachers see how to open world to classrooms with virtual reality

Jamie Martines
| Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, 10:09 p.m.

While most teachers spent the day in the classroom, social studies teacher Doug Kirchner spent Friday traveling the world.

As Kirchner pulled up on the controls, he zoomed past the Christ the Redeemer statue towering above Rio de Janeiro. Moments before, he hovered over the streets of Florence and Rome.

“It's kind of jarring at first,” said Kirchner as he gazed at the landscape, his face obscured by a virtual reality headset. But it didn't take long for him to come up with ways he could use the virtual reality experience in his classes.

“It would be cool if you had kids try and find landmarks,” he said, still immersed in a virtual world.

Kirchner, who teaches in the Upper St. Clair School District, was among 24 social studies teachers from across Allegheny County who attended Friday's training event at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead. The sessions introduced teachers to a range of virtual reality tools, from the low-end Google Cardboard to the high-end HTC Vive, that could be suitable for classroom use.

It was the first training session of its kind hosted by the intermediate unit. But Tyler Samstag, director of instructional innovation, said it was only the beginning. Future sessions will help teachers think critically about how to plan lessons around virtual reality activities and ensure the exercises have real educational value.

According to Samstag, the overarching goal of the training session was to push educators to consider how they could “present material in a radically new fashion” and engage students in new learning experiences. For example, students can travel anywhere in the world — or even back in time — without leaving the classroom.

But Samstag, whose background is in humanities and special education, pointed out that virtual reality tools also have the potential to support students with special needs. The multisensory nature of virtual reality, a fully immersive visual and aural experience, could help to engage students at a range of points on the autism spectrum by giving them a safe space to explore and experiment with different activities, he said.

Educators like Eric Weimerskirch, a sixth-grade teacher in the Elizabeth Forward School District, are excited to use virtual reality to introduce students to different cultures and religions.

“This is a great tool for breaking stereotypes,” Weimerskirch said.

Virtual reality exercises would allow students, who Weimerskirch said may not have the chance to leave their small towns, to visit new places and learn about people who are different from them.

“You're very much on your own, but you can collaborate with the greater world,” Linda Muller, continuing professional education specialist at the intermediate unit, said of the virtual reality experience.

Despite the excitement of being able to expose students to new places and experiences or to be able to meet each student's unique learning needs in new ways, Muller acknowledged many challenges remain to making virtual reality work in the classroom.

The biggest hurdle schools will face is acquiring the technology, she said. While Google Cardboard headsets cost around $8-$15 per device, each user also needs a smart phone equipped with applications to run virtual reality videos. High-end devices could cost several hundred dollars and must be used with a compatible computer. In addition, all of this requires internet access. Internet speed and safety restrictions could be obstacles in some districts.

Challenges aside, many teachers at Friday's training session were confident that their students would be on board with virtual reality activities. The next step, for teachers, is making sure that students are prepared to learn something along the way.

“I think they would really get into it,” said Angie Kennon, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Elizabeth Forward.

Kennon said that she felt like Godzilla as she explored Manhattan from above using a high-end HTC Vive device.

But before students put the headsets on and explore new cities, Kennon said, they must be equipped with the knowledge to get something out of the experience. She suggested giving students assignments that would allow them to explore a place or event through more traditional research first.

In addition to considering the practical challenges, some teachers, like Molly Chester, a high school social studies teacher in Avonworth School District, took a more philosophical approach to thinking about the role of technology in the classroom. She thinks that educators must also be prepared to talk to students about how tools like virtual reality could have both a positive and negative impact on relationships in the physical world.

“How is it going to impact our real-world experience?” Chester said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or jmartines@tribweb.com.

A class about virtual reality technology in the classroom is led for teachers from Allegheny and Westmoreland County at Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
A class about virtual reality technology in the classroom is led for teachers from Allegheny and Westmoreland County at Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
A class about virtual reality technology in the classroom is led for teachers from Allegheny and Westmoreland County at Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
A class about virtual reality technology in the classroom is led for teachers from Allegheny and Westmoreland County at Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Displayed is a view of downtown Pittsburgh on the screen of a part of a virtual reality set that teachers were learning with during a class at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Displayed is a view of downtown Pittsburgh on the screen of a part of a virtual reality set that teachers were learning with during a class at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Amy Williams, a teacher at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, practices with a virtual reality set during a class at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Amy Williams, a teacher at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, practices with a virtual reality set during a class at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in Homestead on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
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