A look at the future of learning

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Emry Dinman/Columbia Basin Herald - Students at Royal Middle School explore a science lesson with their new virtual reality headsets.

Royal Middle School is looking towards the future with the implementation of virtual reality headsets as a tool to promote learning and technological know-how.

With support of the Gear Up Washington program, which is designed to boost student engagement and preparedness for post-secondary school, hundreds of the school’s students are getting to learn and play with VR for the first time. Primarily used in seventh- and eighth-grade science classes, the headsets can be used to explore human anatomy, geological phenomena and more.

For science teacher Theresa Piper, the headsets have become a valuable tool for learning that she sees being used more in the future. Piper worked with students involved in her leadership class to write best practices for teaching with the equipment, practices that she has implemented in the classroom.

On a computer screen behind her desk, little smiley-face icons show Piper where students are looking, so she know when students are engaged with the task at hand. Piper can also direct students to look in a particular direction with a flashing arrow prompt, which she said is surprisingly effective.

“It really is amazing to watch two dozen heads all turn in the same direction at the same time when the arrow starts flashing,” Piper said. “Psychologically, you just can’t resist following the directions.”

Some of the other programs that the headsets come equipped with allow students to travel down a Google Maps overlay, traveling the world without ever leaving their seats. The equipment also came with a video camera specially designed to film 360-degree movies, which students can later explore. To that end, the school’s football coach has begun to experiment with filming games so students and teachers can always attend the games to their fullest.

Beyond teaching students how to adopt new technologies and adapt to a changing world, Piper hopes that being able to see subjects in front of them will translate into students being able to describe those subjects to their teachers and peers.

“I foresee that the kids will get really good at communicating verbally what they’re seeing with their classmates,” Piper said. “We can speak academically and get a point across and sound educated, and once you start speaking that way, it will be a natural response to begin writing that way too.”

Student engagement with science lessons has seen a marked improvement in recent months, Piper said, and the programs have enough safeguards in place to ensure students aren’t becoming distracted by virtual world. Further, students have begun to come to after school workshops in numbers the school has rarely seen, all wanting to use the new headsets in their free time.

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