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Shaler students blast off into virtual world of learning

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

As the lights dimmed and the floor rumbled, students at Shaler Area Elementary School took off on an educational adventure in a high-tech classroom that takes students into space, underwater and beyond.

Last week, the school celebrated the official launch of IKS Titan, a virtual classroom that provides students with educational, simulated adventures.

“As educators, we're always looking for new and innovative ways to educate our students and we believe Dream Flight is all that and more,” said Shaler Area Elementary School principal Cynthia Foht.

Shaler Area partnered with Dream Flight Adventures, a Pittsburgh-based creative education technology firm, to install the company's first classroom simulator, a project that was made possible through an $80,000 grant from The Grable Foundation.

The classroom, which resembles a spaceship, complete with a multilevel command bridge and 16 stations, allows students to take ownership of their positions on the crew as they navigate through a possible four different educational missions as the Infinity Knights, a league of protectors of peace and justice throughout the universe.

“They forget they're kids and time stops,” said Mike Penn, a gifted and talented education (GATE) teacher, of the Dream Flight missions. “They are that job, they own it.”

To promote the problem-solving skills and collaboration necessary to successfully complete a mission, there are no adults in the simulator, however, Penn monitors the students and the mission from an adjacent control room and poses additional challenges to the crew based on the decisions they make.

“At any point, they can make a decision that leads them off the intended path,” he said. “They can fail.”

Dream Flight Adventures is the brainchild of director Gary Gardiner who based the idea off of the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center, a space camp in Utah he attended as a child.

Through the creation of four different missions, students can explore different worlds while experiencing life and career skills, higher-order thinking skills, core subjects, and technology skills within the framework of standards-based curriculum.

In the mission Succession,” students are faced with restoring peace on a planet after its monarch died and the oracle responsible for naming the successor went missing. The American Revolution is reflected in a mission, “Insurrection,” in which an alien empire is outraged by a biofuel tax.

Students also are faced with the decision to save the Lusitania, which might in turn prevent the United States from entering World War I, all while battling giant sea monsters. “Pandemic” provides a different kind of adventure for students where they are transported into the body of a delegate who has become seriously ill in the middle of negotiating a peace treaty between two civilizations that have been separated for hundreds of years.

“It really is a real life Magic School Bus,” Gardiner said, referring to a series of children's books and television show in which students go on field trips in a transforming school bus.

“You step through that door and you're in a completely different world.”

The “door” is a revolving “airlock” chamber created by Bob Gazowski, construction lead, who envisioned the spaceship classroom, where even the air filter and breaker box are labeled as “life support” and “nuclear reactor,” respectively, and each station has its own iPad control screen.

“We go over the top,” Gardiner said of the simulator. “We create an emotional experience and because of that, it creates a memory that stays with them for the rest of their lives … so learning stays with them forever.”

As Gardiner dreamed, the simulator has reignited an interest and enthusiasm in school.

“I think that it's a better way of learning things,” said Anna Rosso, a fifth-grader. “It tricks us into learning. It's a fun way of learning.”

Will Dwyer, a sixth-grader, excitedly talked about the Pandemic as his favorite mission because he learned more about the human body by traveling through the blood stream in the simulator ship.

“There are purple virus spiders,” Dwyer said. “You have to get away from the white blood cells without hurting them (because) they're your ally.”

While the Dream Flight simulator has been piloted by students in the gifted and talented education program to date, the experience will be open to all students in grades four to six and incorporated into their lessons. Administrators said the simulator also might one day be open to the other students in the district or from outside groups as the district expands the simulator.

“We are excited because our children have an opportunity to learn in an environment that reflects the way the world is today … using modern technology and collaborating,” Foht said.

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or bhofstetter@tribweb.com.

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