The University Libraries at Virginia Tech is teaming up with Blacksburg Middle School to create a virtual reality laboratory and integrate virtual reality technology into the middle school learning experience.
Jonathan Bradley, the innovative technologies coordinator for learning environments at the University Libraries, is assisting in the creation of this pilot installation to spark a larger initiative to bring virtual reality to all Montgomery County public middle schools.
Since November 2017, Bradley has been working closely with Alicia McGee of Montgomery County Public Schools along with Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) to create a plan for Blacksburg Middle School to implement space and training for virtual reality technology.
McGee initially reached out to Bradley when her son, a middle school student, came home from a school tour of the University Libraries’ Newman Library. Like many who visit Newman’s Virtual Environments Studio, he was excited to use the virtual reality technology. As an instructional technology resource teacher, McGee began to think about how virtual reality could impact all middle schoolers, especially as they move into high school and start to investigate future career interests.
At first, McGee did not know if creating a virtual reality space in Blacksburg Middle School would be technically feasible. But Bradley, with the help of Blacksburg Middle School and ICAT personnel, concluded that building a virtual reality area would be possible with a few minor alterations to the space.
Montgomery County Public Schools and Bradley submitted a grant application to the ICAT SEAD (Science, Engineering, Art, and Design) mini grant at Virginia Tech to fund the project and was awarded $3,000 from the Jones Fund for Teacher Professional Development and the Virginia Tech Center for Research in SEAD Education at ICAT.
A large portion of the grant will cover professional training for all instructional technology resource teachers in the local middle schools as well as 14 Blacksburg Middle School teachers. The remaining money will fund the equipment and support laboratory renovations.
“We are hoping teachers will use the space to introduce new and engaging learning experiences to our students using virtual reality,” McGee said. “Virtual experiences are cross-curricular, from art and social studies to science, and beyond. The application Unity will also be offered to students to begin developing their own 3D activities.”
Since the studio will be in a computer lab, the idea is that one or two students can experiment with virtual reality while others work nearby on computers. This way, students are able to develop technical skills alongside opportunities for virtual immersion.
These virtual reality experiences build key soft skills such as spatial awareness, empathy, and communication. Alongside math visualization tools such as “CalcFlow,” virtual reality lends itself well to environmental simulation, including applications that allow users to experience mental disabilities or visual-aural impairment.
Concepts become experiences in virtual reality — it bridges the gap between abstract ideas and their applications.
“People see a lot of potential in virtual and augmented reality,” Bradley said. “The technology provides realistic vision for students, it’s a powerful tool. They get to see concepts they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to because they are physically not able, or because they aren’t yet in the professional world.”
Alongside the positive reception from Blacksburg Middle School faculty, the project has created local buzz as well. Other schools both in and outside of Montgomery County have reached out to Bradley, intrigued by the possibilities of virtual reality installments.
“I’m excited about all the interest outside of this project,” Bradley said. “The next step might even be to work with ICAT and apply for a National Science Foundation grant, that way we could fund virtual reality technology for all Montgomery County schools.”
Completion of the installation and training is set for summer 2018. The University Libraries’ Virtual Environments Studio is located in Newman Library Room 4020 and is open, by appointment, Sunday through Friday, 4 - 8 p.m. To reserve a time, visit virtualstudio.lib.vt.edu.
— Written by Alec Masella