Students at a Baltimore County high school this fall will explore the area surrounding Mount St. Helens in a vehicle that can morph from an aircraft to a car to a boat to learn about how the environment has changed since the volcano’s 1980 eruption.
But they’ll do it all without ever leaving their Chesapeake High School classroom–they will be using a three-dimensional Virtual Learning Environment developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) with the university’s Center for Technology Education.
A coalition that also included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the University of Baltimore is deploying the environment, which was modeled after a state-of-the-art, 3-D visualization facility at APL that was used for projects by the Department of Defense and NASA. The Virtual Learning Environment is the first of its kind in the nation, said Baltimore County Superintendent Joe Hairston.
David Peloff, program director of emerging technologies at Johns Hopkins’ Center for Technology in Education, said the Virtual Learning Environment grew out of a recently completed federal grant that allowed researchers to look at the ways gaming and simulation technology could be used to help children learn.
"There’s not a lot of research that says this directly improves student achievement. We have a hunch that it does," he said. "But we do know that it improves student involvement. And it [improves] teacher involvement, as well."
Rising 11th-grader Reese Glidden, who worked with the Virtual Learning Environment over the summer, noted that when students have interest in something, they are more willing and able to learn–and gaming is something that students are interested in.
"People can learn anything, but they have to be interested in it. There are people who can [recite] sports statistics for the past 10 years, because it’s something that they’re interested in," he said.
Hairston stressed that students need to be taught in ways they are able to understand and relate to.
"I’ve been saying for the past six years or so, if you want to know about the future and technology, there are two places you should go: the military or Toys ‘R’ Us," he said. "We need to teach our children where they are, and not where we were."
Peloff said the area around Mount St. Helens was chosen because the ecosystem has changed dramatically over the past 30 years and is a great place to begin integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concepts into the virtual environment.
"But we will work to develop other environments, and [we] hope that eventually students will be able to create their own environment," he said. "This year, we’re developing a moon environment."
The Virtual Learning Environment includes 10 high-definition, 72-inch TV monitors, arranged in two five-screen semicircles that allow students to interact with what they see on screen using a custom-designed digital switch and touch-panel controller. In an adjoining lab, 30 workstations, each outfitted with three interconnected monitors, will display the same environments, allowing lessons to be translated and understood on a team or a student basis.
Students using the Virtual Learning Environment will visit and explore a geographically accurate terrain model of the region surrounding Mount St. Helens. They will encounter learning challenges that involve virtual characters, animals, and other 3-D objects–such as determining why fish in a lake are dying. Two-dimensional resources such as documents, photographs, and videos also can be integrated into the learning modules.
All Chesapeake High School students will have the opportunity to use the Virtual Learning Environment. The classroom and lab will be incorporated into the school’s environmental science and geometry curricula this school year, with plans to extend to social studies and English next year.
"This year is a planning and learning year for us. Then we will determine how [the Virtual Learning Environment] can be replicated at other schools," said Kara E.B. Calder, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County Public Schools.