University of Illinois at Chicago Office of Public Affairs (MC 288)
601 S. Morgan St., Chicago, IL 60607-7113, (312) 996-3456,

January 5, 2000 Contact: Bill Burton (312) 996-2269,
  Rachel Snyder (312) 996-3457,


The idea that you can begin at one point, follow a straight line and end up in exactly the same place seems incongruous, but it is a fundamental concept behind one University of Illinois at Chicago team's virtual reality program for teaching elementary schoolchildren that the world is round.

"Round Earth," created by Tom Moher and Andy Johnson, UIC professors of computer science, and Stellan Ohlsson, UIC professor of psychology, is just one of several "virtual" programs now in use at Lincoln Elementary School in Oak Park. The school recently became the first in the nation to house a semi-permanent virtual reality installation. Projected three-dimensionally on an Immersadesk(R) - a technology developed in UIC's Electronic Visualization Laboratory which looks like a cross between a large-screen TV and a drafting table ­ these virtual worlds link education, technology and fun for first- through sixth-graders.

"Elementary school is a time for concrete, operational learning, dealing with very tangible sorts of things," Moher says. "The real excitement is providing someone with a first-person, egocentric experience which is very unlike what you could get on a 13-inch screen or print media."

"Round Earth," for example, transports kids on a spaceship around an imaginary planet. After a few minutes, they are asked to park their spacecraft and circumnavigate the planet for extra fuel cells.
Another program, the "NICE Garden," allows kids to explore a virtual garden where they can plant vegetables, remove weeds, or explore the root systems - individually, or with kids located on another continent.

In initial tests at a Chicago elementary school last year, Moher and his team found that children who scored below average in understanding basic science concepts had advanced to the average class level understanding after implementing their educational strategies with 3-D learning.
Numerous programs are currently being created at UIC based on teachers' suggestions at Lincoln Elementary that will allow students to learn about solar systems, biological systems, weather patterns and other basic science concepts.

Installing an Immersadesk in an actual school setting allows the team to strategize and trouble-shoot with teachers, says Moher. "Working in a real school introduces child-management issues, time constraints, curriculum alignment, and other issues which you just don't have to deal with in the laboratory, but it's the only way to really know whether our ideas are workable with real kids and real teachers."

"History is full of grandiose promises regarding the impact of technology on schools. We're working with an advanced technology that is today well outside the budget of school systems," says Moher, who has served on the Board of Education for Lincoln's parent District 97 Public School system. "While we believe that virtual reality may have benefits for learners, we need to pinpoint where those benefits might outweigh the costs."

The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.


Copyright © 1999 by B&P Consulting, Inc. and University of Illinois at Chicago. All rights reserved.
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