- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - Students in Las Cruces saw a glimpse of what classrooms of the future may look like, and the role virtual reality may play in education.

In early February, Lisa McCuller, a special education teacher at Arrowhead Park Early College High School, received last-minute notice that a representative from Google Expeditions would be available to demonstrate the company’s virtual reality application for classrooms to students of Arrowhead Park. They arrived the next day, a Friday.

“I attended a conference in El Paso with Jaime Casap, the head education evangelist for Google,” McCuller said. “He mentioned the opportunity with Google Expeditions, so we applied for it. We did not get accepted the first time, but got accepted the second time.”

Teachers scrambled to come up with ways to apply Google Expeditions to their lessons. Reyes Duran, who is teaching Shakespeare to her English IV class, took her students to experience the Globe Theater in London. Lynette Defreitas, who teaches English II, took her students to explore the Roman ruins. Cheryl Fallstead, who teaches photography and Photoshop, took her class to participate in a career-oriented expedition dedicated to the role of a museum photographer.

Expeditions

Google Expeditions is a new product, being beta-tested, that allows teachers to take their classes on virtual field trips. Using Google Cardboard - the cardboard viewfinder that turns a smartphone into virtual reality headset - students can experience immersive educational “field trips” to myriad locations.

“There are hundreds of Google Expeditions available today, and new ones are being added daily,” said David Webb, a Google Expeditions representative who facilitated the Las Cruces visit. “This is a really exciting project to be part of, because we’re taking things that students would normally learn in a textbook, that might otherwise be dry, and we’re able to bring it to life.”

Expeditions include places that a school bus could never go. Students can experience the Grand Canyon from a drone’s-eye view, explore the Great Barrier Reef and even walk on Mars, as captured by the Mars Rover.

The app is great for history classes, Webb said.

“If you’re studying certain battles throughout history, and you’re trying to envision what the battlefield looked like, Google Expeditions can actually take you there,” Webb said. “You can look around, imagine the weaponry that was used, and virtually experience what that may have been like. It feels like a real experience.”

‘A great thing’

“The idea of being able to tour someplace that you’re nowhere near is really cool,” said Javery Stevens, a 17-year-old junior in Duran’s English class. “And now we’ve progressed to 360-degree cameras in three dimensions, so you get a better sense of depth. I thought it was really cool.”

Javery said he has experienced VR before, playing games on his friend’s Oculus Rift. He can definitely imagine a role for VR in classrooms of the future, he said.

“If we got better at it, you could have tours of different places, where you can walk around,” Javery said. “It could also be used to create virtual classrooms, so anyone could attend from anywhere in the world.”

Aidan Marrujo, a 15-year-old sophomore, said he enjoyed the new experience.

“I saw 3-D graphics being used in ways that I’ve never even seen before, I’ve never experienced like this,” Aidan said. “I really think this is a great thing. It allows people who can’t travel a lot to experience so many places. I’ve never seen these coliseums or these theaters, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to get to travel to them. But seeing them today, I was just so amazed.”

Aidan said, as an educational tool, the possibilities are endless. In class, he toured the Grand Canyon.

“I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, and that was a great experience,” Aidan said.

Elaina Hughes, a 16-year-old sophomore, also enjoyed it.

“With Google Cardboard, I was able to experience so many things that I’ll probably never get to see, because I’m probably just going to stay here,” she said with a laugh. “Seeing the ocean floor - I’m probably not going to go diving, either, so that’s a really great thing to see.”

Finding applications

For the students of Arrowhead Park, the opportunity presented a first-of-its-kind chance to enrich the day-to-day curriculum, said Marcy Oxford, the school’s assistant principal.

“Being able to experience these virtual tours gives them an opportunity to really connect with the curriculum in ways they couldn’t before,” Oxford said. “We have a teacher who is teaching ‘The Odyssey,’ and she was able to let her students experience ancient Greece. They can get an understanding of the landscape. It makes it a nearly tangible experience for them.”

Oxford praised the teachers who were able to find virtual reality applications for their lessons on such short notice.

“They found out last Thursday, so the teachers didn’t have a lot of time to integrate this into their lesson plans,” Oxford said. “But the teachers here are so brilliant. Like the calculus teacher who used a tour of Washington, D.C., to explain the practical applications of calculus through the architecture.”

Google Expeditions visited East Picacho Elementary and planned to spend a day at Monte Vista Elementary, Webb said.

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Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, https://www.lcsun-news.com

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