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Classroom-size simulator to provide educational adventures at J.E. Harrison Middle School

| Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record
Harrison Middle School earth science teacher Mike Kaleta shows where an interactive simulator screen will be installed.
Harrison Middle School earth science teacher Mike Kaleta points out where an interactive simulator will be installed.
Overview of a break room that will be transformed into an interactive simulator

Travel to an interstellar colony to help keep the peace during a conflict, much like the American Revolution. Or, take a journey through the human body on a shrunken vessel and help stop a pandemic.

The 900 students at J.E. Harrison Middle School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District will have a unique opportunity this fall to partake in hands-on, interactive, educational learning experiences through a classroom-sized simulator that will be constructed at their school.

“This is like Disney World brought to a school,” Principal Michael Wetmiller said.

Harrison Middle School, the new Penn Hills Elementary Center and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History all were selected to receive a grant from the Grable Foundation to partner with education-technology firm Dream Flight Adventures, where they each will have a simulator built in their buildings to take students on missions through real-life, imaginative adventures — sometimes, with a twist, think: the Magic School Bus.

“This magic bus takes kids on an incredible adventure to anywhere they want to go,” said Gary Gardiner, creator of Dream Flight Adventures, who came up with the idea for his company as a fifth-grader attending space camp. Dream Flight Adventures opened in 2011 and the first classroom simulator was built in the Shaler Area School District, launching last March.

The classrooms have tiered level seating, and each student is given an iPad at his or her workstation, where they sit in front of a large viewing screen, working together to complete a mission — like helping to stop a pandemic, Wetmiller said.

“At every station, the kid has a different job. You're going to have a pilot, a navigator, an engineer, a doctor,” Wetmiller said.

The students work together on jobs, like entering the human body, each with an academic focus. The missions align with state curriculum standards.

“If you attack the wrong thing, like if you attack the white blood cells, you're going to lose the game, but then you learn how white blood cells work from doing it,” Wetmiller said.

“This is a real life experience,” said Michael Kaleta, science department chair at Harrison Middle School. “The choices that the kids make individually will affect the outcome of the simulation and will affect the outcome of what the other jobs will have to do.”

Each mission often has an ethical decision that the students will face.

“Yes, they're doing the science behind it, but then there's that point in the mission where the kids will have to make a decision that they know is going to affect people in a certain way,” Kaleta said.

Eight missions already are available, Gardiner said.

The staff in Baldwin-Whitehall, though, is creating its own, tied to the school's STEM, or science, technology, English and math, focus, and Wonders of Water project that ties in all those subjects for students in grades six to eight.

“We really want to make it an academic focus, but expose them to real-world experiences,” Baldwin-Whitehall director of programs Darlene DeFilippo said. “It's like the cherry on top. It brings everything full circle.”

A teacher planning room at Harrison is being transformed into the simulation space. The area likely will include a debriefing space, a control area for the teacher and 17 stations for students.

Yet, nothing is finalized as construction has yet to begin. The hope is to open the simulation room at the start of the 2014-15 school year, Wetmiller said.

“The wheels are still turning in here,” Kaleta said.

Having a simulator in each quadrant of the Pittsburgh region — north, south, east and central — is important, Gardiner said, as requests have been coming in from across the country.

Baldwin-Whitehall stood out for the project because of the excitement of district leaders to partake in the initiative, Gardiner said.

“It's a unique experience,” Kaleta said. “It's like you take a student and drop them off in the middle of a movie and they have to write the end of the script.”

After visiting the Shaler facility, Wetmiller said, none of the descriptions he heard did it justice.

“All this talk, looking at the drawings, reading the descriptions, did not set the expectation high enough for what it was when I walked in. When I walked in, it was a ‘Wow' factor,” he said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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