Virtual Reality in the Classroom - Part 1

BAR HARBOR, Maine (WABI) - Technology in the classroom is now as common as pencil and paper.

But some students in Maine are stepping into a whole new world of hi-tech learning.

Computers, laptops, mobile devices - all are used to teach students these days.

A handful of public schools in Maine, though, are now bringing the virtual world into the classroom.

"When I started this class, he said we could use it to prototype and I was like I'm using VR to prototype. This is the room we designed for Ms. Keblinsky. This right here is the entrance to the conference room."

What looks like game time for Cody Parker is actually class time.

"We made a blue accent wall right there."

And this could be the start of his career as an engineer.

Parker says VR "allows you to draw out what you want to do, pretty fast, without having to make it in real life."

The freshman at MDI High School in Bar Harbor is using a virtual reality program to reconfigure a room for a staff member.

It's part of a Design Thinking class that teaches students how to tackle a problem.

Earlier this year, the school bought an HTC Vive for about $2,500 with money from a local grant.

"Really, it's the space and the dimension that people are feeling as they are inside of that space that you get from the VR headset that's different."

Once the headset is on, the user relies on controllers to navigate and create in that 3-D space.

"This really seems kind of at the forefront of accessible technology for people to manipulate objects and to do that in a way that's different than the technology has allowed to past," says Educational Technology Director Mark Arnold.

Using VR to play video games is common.

Arnold says what's new is pairing it with classroom instruction.

"Kids can go inside the body and travel around in the body. They have virtual dissection, different things like that where there is some kind of transfer of things students might've done in the past."

This is Jeff Zaman's second time teaching Design Thinking with the new equipment.

"I knew the kids would just love it because it's fun," Zaman says. "And of course that's the whole key - if it's fun then they'll stay on it. And learn it really well. And sometimes they don't really know they're learning everything that they're learning, which is the secret right?"

He says the value of VR here is not necessarily helping kids use or master the technology.

It's the ability to create, erase and create, again.

"It's not a failure, it's a learning process," says Zaman. "Getting them comfortable with getting that feedback to make a better product is one of the biggest things I see that's great going forward."

"When we wanted to show it to Ms. Keblinsky, we just had her put on this headset," says Parker. "So she told us the things we need to change. So we did that and then we showed it to her again. This is the blue wall that we had in the VR."

Zaman says VR as a regular part of this class is just the beginning of how it can be used throughout the high school.

In fact, the limits to its application may be as limitless at the technology itself.

"I think VR is going to be around for a very long time. Think it's really the direction things are going. It's just a way to immerse yourself in a world with just being able to put on a headset."

Another big advantage of VR is the ability to take students to places they've never been before or may never have the chance to go.

That's certainly the case for a small school in Washington County that's home to 150 kids from pre-k to seniors.

We'll visit East Grand School in Part 2 of Virtual Reality in the Classroom.