WARREN, NJ - Imagine you’re standing on the deck of a sunken ship. Fish of all sizes and hues dart in and out of the aquatic foliage that waves gently in the current. You turn to take in the watery view and... yikes! An enormous blue whale appears close enough to touch, seeming to smile with a big, toothy grin as it gracefully glides by.
Such is the like-real experience available through a virtual reality system recently debuted at Warren Middle School. Hard to believe that a simple headset and a couple of handheld controllers can transport you into King Tut’s tomb to find hidden treasure, place you on a rocky ledge overlooking a vast canyon, or lead you on an underwater adventure.
“When I first experienced the virtual world, I was completely amazed by the possibilities that exist for our students,” says Cynthia Cassidy, media specialist at the middle school. “The thing I like best about it is that there are new simulations being developed every single day. The simulations give students a chance to apply their knowledge and to safely explore new frontiers without ever leaving WMS.”
Warren Township Board of Education members were treated to a demonstration of the device on Oct. 4, with a few choosing to pay a visit to a virtual world before sitting down to the reality of the regularly scheduled board meeting.
“Who wants to try?” district computer technician Patrick MacNamara asked the gathering. “You can go on a virtual field trip to King Tut’s tomb. You can visit the Pyramids. You can paint in 3-D.”
“It really is very 3-dimensional,” said outgoing board member Kathy Helewa, about the moon which loomed nearby during her virtual visit to space. “It feels like I’m going to hit it.”
Board president Tia Allocco wrote “Wow” and “So cool” in the air as she painted on a virtual palette. “This is amazing,” she said.
“The level of detail is fantastic,” added board member Len deMontagnac, as he skillfully took aim with bow and arrow in a virtual Fun House.
“If you hear this kind of excitement from adults, you can imagine how the students feel,”Superintendent Dr. Matthew Mingle noted.
At the meeting, board member Andrea Freijomil asked about the broader educational uses of virtual reality in the classroom.
“This is pretty cutting edge for school districts,” Mingle said. "This year is really experimental. It wraps into the larger analysis as to what will replace the Smart Board and other technology. It’s already time to start thinking about what comes next. As we see how kids and teachers use it, we’ll get a better idea."
Meantime, students and educators are brimming with ideas.
The Vive “is so realistic. This could really bring social studies to life for the students,“ says Grade 6 Social Studies teacher Karen Balich. “It would be great to have something that allows the student to take a tour of the Palace of Versailles while studying the French Revolution, to climb Mount Everest while studying India/China, to walk through a factory when learning about the Industrial Revolution, to see inside a mosque while learning about the Middle East.”
“The part that I like the best was how real it looked. If you did something, it looked like you could touch it,” says 8th grader Logan Levine who suggests a virtual “blackboard” for math lessons or “a program with chemicals” for science.
Perhaps a step back in time to colonial days to churn virtual butter and milk virtual cows, says grade 6 language arts teacher Chelsea Hill. Or, for Mary Pat Brown’s Innovation and Design students... a visit to an engineer’s workspace to help design and build a bridge.
“I like that you feel submersed in the virtual reality,” says Lynn Alger, who teaches broadcast journalism and technology courses. “Your imagination is your own boundary.”