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Learning Lessons: Virtual reality in the classroom

Voice: March 2019

This story is part of a regular series, “Learning Lessons: Great ideas, Great schools,’’ that features educators who are doing great things or conducting great programs in Pennsylvania’s public schools. For other stories in the series go to www.psea.org/learninglessons.

Picture this. You’re standing on the surface of a rocky, alien landscape on the edge of an enormous crater. Deposits of what look like snow and ice dot the landscape. You turn to the left to see Jupiter looming massively over distant mountains, dominating an alien sky packed with brilliant stars.

“We’re standing on Metis, which is the closest of Jupiter’s moons,” says the disembodied voice of Daniel Woleslagle, a sixth-grade science teacher at Lycoming Valley Intermediate School and your guide on this field trip to the far reaches of the solar system.

“How many moons does Jupiter have?” Woleslagle asks. “Sixty-seven!” comes the chorus of enthusiastic replies.

This cosmic excursion is made possible thanks to a pair of cardboard goggles with an embedded iPod running Google Expeditions, one of many free virtual reality education apps that power Woleslagle’s lessons.

Unlike viewing a video or slideshow, this is an immersive, 360-degree environment that each person is free to explore individually, simply by rotating their head and looking around.

“With virtual reality, we can take (students) on trips we could never take them in real life,” Woleslagle said.

“They’re able to make their own observations and then ask each other questions based on what they’re seeing. So, there’s a common experience that creates more discussion.”

Today’s lesson makes it clear virtual reality is a great fit for the science classroom. But what about other subjects? For Woleslagle, the sky’s the limit.

“We’ve used it in music class. We’ve used it to look at social studies. We’ve used it for language arts,’’ he said.

“We’ve been able to do writing prompts based on experiences we’ve had. Or take a virtual reality trip to Gettysburg to discuss a social studies unit. So, we are able to use it in a lot of different areas all across the curriculum.”

And also, across the district. Lycoming Valley Intermediate’s sister school, Curtain, recently purchased their own virtual reality lab and have begun experimenting with it. Meanwhile, Woleslagle’s lessons have caught on with other teachers in his building who have started to incorporate the technology into their daily lesson plans.

“Trying new things is never a bad idea in education,” he said. “I feel like we need to keep evolving and meeting the needs of our students on their level.”

Making VR a reality

In his quest for the latest teaching tech, Woleslagle stumbled upon a Google Expeditions demo at the Pennsylvania Educa­tion Technology Expo and Conference three years ago.

“I got to experience what it would be like to go on a field trip to Niagara Falls and I thought, ‘What an amazing benefit!’ I did a little research and found that there were a lot of people who were pioneering things in virtual reality for education.”

Thanks to a grant from the Williamsport Area School Dis­trict Education Foundation, the school was able to purchase 30 iPods and as many Google Cardboard Virtual Reality Viewers. In addition to being affordable, the cardboard goggles are easily repairable, or recycled into a maker-space project when they in­evitably wear out.

At a cost of $210 per student – $10 for the viewer and $200 for the iPod – the program’s total bill came to $8,600. All of it paid for with grant money.

Of the many free apps, Woleslagle’s go-to is Google Expe­ditions, which he calls an “all-encompassing teaching and learn­ing tool.” But a quick search on any app store platform will uncover a host of great resources. He’s also used programs that utilize MERGE Cube, an augmented reality device that can be transformed into various objects when used in conjunction with other specialized apps.

“The response from the students has been fantastic,” he said. “They’re really excited about it. So much so that they’ve asked that it be put into our schoolwide positive behavior plan. So, one of the incentives they can earn is more education through virtual reality, which is just a great thing.”

Parents too. “I've had a lot of parents reach out to me and reach out to the school and talk about what a great opportunity they see this as,” Woleslagle said.

At the same time, he understands that not everyone is so quick to embrace a new paradigm, especially when it involves unfamiliar technology.

“Some people are very hesitant to look at new programs, es­pecially if that comes with a cost,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to have a grant, but we really make sure that we are using these devices to their maximum capacity to illustrate their value. We use them for more than just the virtual reality, and in doing that we actually save money as opposed to buying more expensive computers for classrooms.”

To infinity and beyond

For Woleslagle, virtual reality is just one window into a thrilling future that fuses technology and teaching in ways we’re just beginning to comprehend. And in many ways, it’s the stu­dents who will determine that.

“I don’t think that virtual reality is going to be the final say in their future, and I think that they’re looking at technologies that we haven’t even dreamed of yet,” he said.

Lycoming Valley recently implemented a new incentive called co-spaces or edu-spaces, that allows students to design their own worlds in virtual reality and 3D and share those proj­ects with their classmates.

“So instead of doing a book report, you can design a whole scene from a book and bring the whole class along as you de­scribe it, actually being live in that scene,” Woleslagle said.

By tapping into kids’ comfort with new technology, Woleslagle hopes to encourage them to see these tools not just as entertainment, but as vehicles for learning.

“The one thing I really want my students to take away is that learning is an experience that happens outside of a desk,” he said. “We can be lifelong learners as long as we take those mo­ments to dig into the information that’s around us and really piece together those connections beyond the textbook and be­yond the teacher in the front of the room.”

Tip Sheet

Williamsport EA member Daniel Woleslagle provides the following advice for creating a virtual reality program.

  • Do your homework. A lot of people are beginning to take an interest in VR and AR, and they can be a great resource for training, app suggestions, and answers.
  • Think outside the box. Think how you can incorporate these ideas into many different subjects that might also lead you to new and inexpensive resources.
  • Don’t overspend. Most apps are free or low cost.
  • Step outside your comfort zone. We want our students to apply their learning and ideas to many different areas of their lives, so we should do the same.