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Mount Aviat students embarking on Google Expeditions

By

Dialog reporter

Virtual reality technology opens up a ‘being there’ door to lessons in history, biology to pupils and teachers

CHILDS, Md. — There’s no reason for students at Mount Aviat Academy to just talk about history or science or social studies any longer. Now, they can travel to 1940s Europe in the aftermath of World War II. They can visit the seabed in search of exotic ocean creatures. Or they can take a tour of the heart.

All that is possible now thanks to the school’s new virtual reality initiative. Introduced in April, the program adds another facet to the education students will receive at Mount Aviat, according to school officials.

“Instead of just talking about the Revolutionary War, you could have an immersive experience using virtual reality,” said the principal, Oblate Sister John Elizabeth Callaghan.

Julia Baynes, who is entering fifth grade this year at Mount Aviat Academy, enjoys one of the adventures offered through the school’s virtual-reality initiative. (The Dialog/Mike Lang)

The lessons are provided by Google Expeditions, she said. The main focus has been on science, but there is material across many subject areas. Mount Aviat was able to purchase 30 goggles, router and video devices – essentially cell phones without phone service – thanks to donations from two alumni families in memory of deceased relatives.

The families of John Lombardo, father of alums Cristina and Joshua, and Carl Cooper, father of Matthew, made this step possible.

Implementing the virtual reality was not very difficult, media teacher Erin Dymowski said. They had to teach the students and faculty how to use and take care of the equipment.

“Spring was a learning process,” she said. “We spent the first 20 minutes (of each class) introducing it to the kids: how to have VR in the classroom, how to take care of it. Then we started to play with all of the aspects and all that we could do.”

They started with the undersea adventure in the computer lab but gradually moved to other scenes while taking the technology to the classrooms. Dymowski coordinated with the teachers to match what they were teaching to the virtual material. For example, the third grade was learning about the human body, so they were able to virtually go through a healthy lung and compare it to a diseased lung. The fifth grade had been through a section on the Revolutionary War and had discussed the “shot heard ’round the world” a few days before the headsets arrived. With them, the students were able to “travel” to the site.

Mount Aviat teacher Erin Dymowski leads a class through a virtual-reality lesson. The school introduced the program last spring. (Photo courtesy of Mount Aviat School)

“They had some prior knowledge. They were able to engage with that, and they were able to say, ‘This is where it happened. This is where they were standing,’” she said.

Rising fifth-grader Julia Baynes traveled to the bottom of the ocean last year. She loves the VR.

“It was awesome,” she said. “You could go anywhere in the whole world, and the pictures are real, like you could touch them. It was weird that you couldn’t see your hands, but the pictures were really cool.”

As the children investigate their new surroundings, the teachers see guided questions on their tablet. They also can point to different objects on the screen that they want the students to see, and when they look at the object, a smiley face appears on the teacher’s screen.

While the Mount Aviat community is excited about its newest learning tool, it will not dominate the classroom, according to Sister John Elizabeth.

“During the course of a lesson, they might have this for five, seven, 10 minutes. Then it comes back down, and there’s another piece of it,” she said.

The students have completely bought into the initiative, communications director Charlene Nichols said. The school had a meeting to explain the virtual reality to parents, but their children have been the best ambassadors.

“When the kids come home and they’re excited about what they’re doing, and they can’t wait to come back and try this, that for us is exactly what we want. They’re the ones spreading the word about Mount Aviat more than anyone else,” Nichols said.

Dymowski said the teachers are excited as well. The reason most get into the profession, she said, is because they want to see their students excited about learning.

Sister John Elizabeth said Mount Aviat will stay with Google Expeditions for now. Google does not charge schools for its material, which currently includes 600 expeditions. It also works with android or Mac tablets. Dymowski compared virtual reality to field trips without the need for permission slips, buses and the other things that come with going off-site. She can’t wait to see what it brings to Childs.

“The goal is engaged 21st-century learners,” she said. “This is the ultimate engagement. If you want kids thinking at that next level, it’s a piece to really help them get there. I want them to be on the ground. Feel it, see it, do it, learn it, and then extend that learning. This is a great way.

“I think we’ve just started tapping into it.”

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