Students take control with virtual reality program

150 particpants from 21 school districts demostrate what they learned creating vitual reality and 3D applications at a Virtual Reality Education Pathfinders event at the Grant Wood Area Education Agency in Cedar Rapids on Friday, August 6, 2010. (Cliff Jette/Sourcemedia Group)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A bunny composed of squares and rectangles did a somersault on a large television screen Friday, August 6, 2010, at the Grant Wood Area Education Agency as Tyler Priem, a 16-year-old high school student going into his sophomore year at Edgewood-Colesburg High School, pressed a series of buttons on his laptop.

It took about an hour and a half to make, he said. It wasnt really that complicated, it just took a while to learn how to move the bones and everything.

Priem is one of the 150 high school students from 21 schools across Eastern Iowa who came to the agency to learn how to create three-dimensional graphics at the Virtual Reality Education Pathfinders institute.

The Pathfinders program is an educational initiative sponsored by the agency and corporate partners to give high school students a chance to learn how to program virtual reality applications. Virtual reality is used in both engineering and medical science to create lifelike models of objects that are not accessible or do not exist yet.

It began in 2006 when the Mayo Clinic donated an advanced virtual reality imaging computer to East Marshall High School in Le Grand. Principal Rex Kozak decided to have his students take the lead on figuring out how to use the new equipment.

We just let them set up, show us what theyre going to do, watch them grow and then get out of the way, Kozak said.

The East Marshall students became engrossed in the technology and have used it to create some advanced models for their classes. Some of the simulations Kozak has seen his students create include a simulation of a car engine as it is moving and a model showing a red blood cell, both of which are used by teachers involved with the program to help demonstrate the concepts.

What makes the program unique is that it puts students in the drivers seat of their own education by having them create models teachers can then use in the classroom, according to program coordinator Dr. Trace Pickering.

We see this as a way to transform schooling. We talk about students leading their learning, but teachers seem to be leading all the learning, Pickering said. With this program, (students) utilize teachers as the content experts to make sure their figures are accurate.

The Pathfinders institute on Thursday and Friday introduced new students to the world of virtual reality. It allowed the incoming learners the chance to get right into creating three dimensional models, instead of having to go through the slow trial and error process of the first students, according to instructor Tyler Richard, one of the original East Marshall students.

We started from no knowledge going into a steep curve of understanding. They probably covered what we covered in 3 months in two days, Richard said.

Richard now is a computer engineering student going into his sophomore year at Iowa State University. He confessed that he used to fall asleep during trigonometry, and would spend every spare moment he had in the band room playing the drums. Pathfinders helped change his priorities.

As soon as I found a tool to help me design things that you couldnt normally design in real life, it really brought me into engineering, Richard said.

Pickering hopes to expand the program into a region-wide effort. The program has grown by more than 172 percent in the last year. Despite missing out on federal grants, Pathfinders was successful in attracting the interest of business that use virtual reality, such as Rockwell Collins and John Deere, who have donated almost $3 million. School districts in Ohio and Connecticut also are working with the agency to join the program.

Mount Vernon seniors Matthew Lichty (left) and Forrest Scott play a virtual reality game soccer game with three balls that they created at a Virtual Reality Education Pathfinders event at the Grant Wood Area Education Agency in Cedar Rapids on Friday, August 6, 2010. (Cliff Jette/Sourcemedia Group)


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