Immersion lab at Montour to offer new learning opportunities for students

| Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015, 9:16 p.m.

Wearing 3-D glasses and sitting in front of glowing computer screens, Montour School District students can construct holographic obstacle courses, peel back delicate layers of the human eye or dissect a Tyrannosaurus rex — all with the flick of a stylus.

“You're able to view things you'd never see in real life,” 11th-grader Michael Maslakowski said of the elaborate software that allows users to examine a dinosaur skeleton or experiment with a car's mechanics.

The Virtual Immersion Lab at Montour High School in Robinson, which cost $70,000, is the first full lab of its kind in the state. The district spent $50,000 on the lab, and the rest was paid for with a $20,000 grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, funded by local foundations, said Justin Aglio, director of innovation at Montour.

“The students are amazed by it. It is unique. There's a lot of buzz about the lab, even at other schools,” Aglio said.

Nearly all of the students who have used it say the lab is “so real,” said Elizabeth Lyte, director of education at zSpace, which is based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and was founded in 2007. “You can pick up and pull out a beating heart or dissect a frog,” she said.

The company has about 70 employees and has installed labs similar to Montour's in about 100 school districts across the country.

Students in Douglas Macek's physics class were among the first to try the district's Virtual Immersion Lab.

The lab has 13 computers, each loaded with zSpace software, and a projector for teacher demonstrations.

The software has simulations tailored not just to math and science lessons, but to social studies and design as well. It includes, for example, models of a Celtic Village and the Great Pyramids.

It has applications beyond education — CAT scan and MRI software is under review for approval by the Food & Drug Administration.

Montour Superintendent Michael Ghilani said he stumbled across zSpace while researching innovative ways to engage students. The district enrolls about 3,000 students from Robinson, Kennedy, Ingram, Pennsbury and Thornburg.

Macek said the software comes with programmed lessons and structured activities, which teachers can edit. Teachers can design activities from scratch and view students' screens on their monitors, allowing for real-time feedback.

“Anything we can do in the classroom, we can do it here,” Macek said. “But it's a much more controlled environment, and you can't break anything.”

High school teachers received two days of zSpace training, part of the cost of buying the system, and some teachers have signed out the lab to show students the software, Aglio said. Teachers are able to sign out the virtual immersion lab as they would a computer lab.

The district plans to collaborate with Montour elementary and middle school teachers, and possibly other school districts, to share the unique space, Aglio said.

“We want to share our technology and resources with the region, so all of our students get better,” he said.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or Katherine Schaeffer contributed to this report.

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