New virtual reality system brings next generation learning to WACTC

New virtual reality system brings next generation learning to WACTC

WACTC student Ebony Valembrun reacts to using zSpace for the first time.

WOONSOCKET – With the touch of a button a beating heart jumps from its display on a computer monitor and into the forefront of the students’ vision.

Guiding a wand over the 3D organ seemingly afloat in midair, the young learners highlight and identify varying parts: aorta, inferior vena cava, mitral valve...

The students watch how each part of the beating, visually impressive pump works, and can speed it up, slow it down, or rotate it with simply movements. After, they’ll virtually dissect the heart, removing parts to see what’s happening behind them.

This is the future of learning, and it has arrived at Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center.

“Everything in the environment can be brought out to you or moved,” explained Shane Muller, data, media, and internship facilitator for the school.

The school recently purchased the futuristic technology from zSpace, a California-based company that has led the field of human-computer interaction. The hardware/software platform was originally developed with backing from the Central Intelligence Agency, and has since found its way into areas in government, medicine and education.

WACTC purchased 10 zSpace systems for around $70,000, making it only the second high school in Rhode Island to offer the high-tech learning method. The Met School in Providence has two.

The system aims to allow students to interact with objects and understand the concepts behind them, with features making it possible, for example, to take apart a human torso.

“The student is literally pulling the muscles apart,” said Muller.

Not surprisingly, the cutting-edge technology is already being used at medical schools, but that’s only the start of what’s possible with zSpace.

“Every program in this building will be able to use this,” said WACTC Director/Assistant Principal William Webb.

For students in the school’s construction program, that means removing the roof and walls on a virtual house to reveal the blueprint, or designing their own building all the way down to placing furniture, and wiring the lighting.

“The kids can actually structure it out to see what size they need to build and how they want to engineer it,” said Muller.

Engineering students can dissect a watch, or better yet, a robotic hand, examining each of the individual parts, and how they connect and work together.

Students in the automotive program can open up an engine without stopping mechanical gears from interacting, and look at every nut and bolt, or build their own engine from scratch.

Chemistry students can look at the structures of different atoms and see what happens when they collide.

Culinary students can design and layout an entire restaurant, or check out the molecular structures of the blueberry muffins they’re baking.

Physics students can see an illustration of the Doppler effect, and gain a better understanding of how sound waves travel.

Astronomy students can even recreate the surface of the moon.

And all the work is done in a visually stunning, immersive environment that’s inevitably engaging for students.

“When we saw it, we said, ‘What are the capabilities? Who can use it?’” said Webb. “The teachers were all pretty excited.”

zSpace users can wear 3d glasses to view the augmented reality, but the screen also snaps into 2d format, providing another view of tasks that previously were too complex, expensive, and dangerous for the classroom. Teachers can create their own lesson plans and work within the thousands of tools already offered.

This week, Muller was creating a model demonstrating how balls rolling on different surfaces – including wood and ice – react in terms of speed and distance. Next, he said he could put the same set up on the moon to show how gravity changes the results.

It’s an interactive information system that continues to grow, with zSpace administrators constantly adding new programs and modules through input from users.

“Anything the students can create, they will animate everything inside it,” said Webb. “It becomes a learning society, and it gives the students the power to help construct the lesson.”

The tool, Webb says, is of increased value in a high school, as studies show that learners under the age of 23 are image-based.

“They will always have that image, and what makes this different is you control the space,” Webb said.

The concept, he said, allows students to explore the world without fear of failure. In an area dubbed “Newton’s Lab” new batteries are often created and students can try out their own designs. If the devices fry out, the program will point out why rather than forcing the student to start from scratch. WACTC kids won’t have to build a crooked house to note problems on a blueprint.

“We have fantastic instructors and now they have a tool that will amplify what they do with students,” Webb said.

Proponents of zSpace say the possibilities are quite literally endless, and with over a thousand modules allowing users to explore everything from botany to zoology and human anatomy, it’s hard not to see the potential. Teachers can build and run physics experiments or illustrate the properties of electricity. A cutting tool allows users to pull back layers of the earth to see the core.

Teachers can also download full environments and then manipulate them, virtually traveling, for instance, to the Pantheon in Rome. The feature could allow the school’s English students to visit a time period or location where the literature they are reading is set.

“The world is there for them to use it,” Webb said. “The opportunities are just endless.”

The systems have made it into some high schools, but the list of colleges is far longer, and includes Worcester Polytechnic, where the biology department is using zSpace in research, and Clemson University, where zSpace is used for auto design courses.
Right now, Webb said of the technology, “It is cutting edge.” Eventually, he said, “This will be as commonplace as a projector.”
“This is the world,” he said. “This is where we’re going.” 
The students and administrators who have tried out the systems have been impressed, and a demonstration of the program for local officials was scheduled for Wednesday.
“They all have the same reaction: Wow,” Webb said. 
“It’s a serious tool that produces a lot of fun.”
Purchased with categorical funding, WACTC’s zSpace system will also include one “extremely high definition,” large screen TV, where teachers or students can lead the class.
Teachers will start their xSpace training on their next professional development day and will have a chance to look at potential lesson plans over the summer.
“Where we go from there is entirely up to the teachers and students,” Webb said. 
The systems will be stored in a single lab and reserved by teachers for different periods.
“I’m excited for our teachers,” Webb said. “I’m extremely excited for our students. In the future, our kids are going to be better off because they worked in these spaces.”

An image shows how zSpace would look to a student using the new high-tech program now in use at Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center.