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UIC RESEARCHERS CREATE VIRTUAL WORLDS FOR SCHOOLKIDS
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."
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.
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.
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.
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