LISBON — A Shelby Mustang races toward the railroad tracks, as a large train looms in the distance. It becomes obvious that the car will not clear the crossing in time.
A collision never happens, though.
The train passes through the car and continues along the track uninterrupted, while the car is frozen in place, unharmed.
“I’m still working on the physics,” Cole Norton said of the images on his computer screen. “It can be pretty realistic once you take the time to put everything in.”
Norton, 14, is a Lisbon High School freshman enrolled in Virtual Reality Education Pathfinders, a computer engineering class popping up at several Eastern Iowa high schools.
The program began in 2006 with the donation of an outdated virtual-reality medical computer from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to East Marshall High School in Le Grand, west of Tama.
No one at the school knew how the computer worked, so Principal Rex Kozak entrusted it
to a group of students to figure it out. The students were so successful, the self-directed approach became the basis of the Pathfinders program, which expanded to other schools in 2008.
Since then, more than 40 Iowa school districts have joined the program, which now counts the Grant Wood Area Education Agency and Rockwell Collins as major sponsors.
In the virtual-reality program, students experiment on their own to find ways the 3-D equipment can be used. Lisbon teacher Mark Benesh said his job is to connect students to resources that can help them reach their goals.
“It’s more of a peer-tutoring environment,” he said.
The program uses Blender, an open-source application, meaning it was developed by a community of programmers volunteering their services and that it’s free. Support for the application comes from online communities of programmers and users, not textbooks. Benesh said those communities are his students’ main source of information.
The students enrolled have no shortage of enthusiasm, said seventh-grader James Cannon, 13.
“My teachers all agree, I have no life outside this place,” he said.
One of the goals of the virtual-reality program is to have students create models that enhance other classes.
Norton’s train simulation, for example, ties into a physics class learning about types of collisions. When completed, his model will allow physics students to better understand the laws of motion by viewing the collision from any angle or speed.
The 3-D equipment costs $3,500 per school, but some of that cost is defrayed by private donors, such as Rockwell Collins, who hope to encourage more kids to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology.
Mount Vernon High School senior Matthew Lichty, 18, graduates in the spring and plans to pursue a degree in a field where he can research artificial intelligence. His Pathfinders experience could come in handy.
“Three-D imaging of the brain is a big part of research into artificial intelligence,” Lichty said.
At Mount Vernon, Pathfinders is an extracurricular activity, rather than a class. The students have created several impressive models this year, such as a simulation of the sun passing over the Chichen Itza pyramids in Mexico and a 3-D caffeine molecule.
Teacher Richard Scearce has no doubts about the technical ability of his students, most of whom are in other engineering-oriented student organizations, like robotics club and cyber defense. He hopes Pathfinders gets them to think beyond programming to the visual aspects.
“Make no mistake, this is art,” Scearce said. “It’s like a Pixar movie. They’re tuning in to their artistic side more than they thought they would.”
Scearce’s only complaint is that most of the students are boys.
Pathfinders is growing fast; expansion to Ohio and Connecticut is in the works, and more Iowa districts are lining up.
Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids is joining. Teacher Lisa Digman said six students are attending a training institute next week.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for these kids,” Digman said. “They are actually going to be doing all the training, I’m not.”