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Students in a northwest Minnesota school can now fly an Apollo space mission to the moon for history class, dissect a pig for science or paint a picture for art, just by strapping on a set of high-tech goggles.

Hawley Public Schools is introducing its students — and their teachers — to the district’s new virtual reality lab, one of only a few hundred around the country.

Elementary school teacher Tracy Baxter worked her way through her first training session with the VR goggles last week. She hopes to use the lab in her fourth- and fifth-grade geography classes.

“So I’m in Seattle, and I’m right by the Space Needle,” she said, as she explored a 360-degree view of the Pacific Northwest via Google Earth. “Oh, gosh! I’m right under the Space Needle!” She paused, taking in the sight. “I think if I went to Seattle it wouldn’t be this cool, actually.”

That wow factor is a common first reaction from teachers and students, said Phil Jensen, the district’s superintendent.

“First of all, it reaches out and kind of grabs you,” he said. “The kids can experience things that we would not be able to provide [by] any other means.”

High school principal Mike Martin was a bit skeptical about virtual reality as a teaching tool until he put on the video goggles himself — and took apart a knee in a VR anatomy lesson — before having an MRI on his own injured knee.

He didn’t stop there. Some of the moments from virtual trips he took — like an underwater scene with a blue whale nearby — have stuck with him for weeks.

“When that big blue whale comes swimming by, you just want to reach out and touch it. I just can’t imagine a third-grader experiencing something like that. It’s incredible,” Martin said.
“I don’t think there’s an accurate description of it without putting the goggles on and seeing what’s going on.”

Hawley’s VR lab is the size of a typical classroom. It has 16 virtual reality headsets, so that two students can share each set of goggles during class. The whole setup cost the district about $45,000.

Immersion that leads to retention

While basic virtual reality goggles like Google Cardboard allows a user to see a 360-degree view of something, the headsets in the Hawley lab allow students to be immersed in the scene they find themselves in the middle of.

Research shows that interaction like that can improve memory retention, but there still isn’t much research yet on the impacts of using virtual reality in elementary and high schools.

Immersive virtual reality is still new in the classroom setting, but Corinne Hoisington, who works as a trainer for VR companies, said it could become an education game-changer.

“You only remember 10 percent of what you read. You can recite usually about 30 percent of what you hear. But 80 percent is what you remember when you’re immersed,” said Hoisington, a professor at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, Va.

Virtual reality can give students an edge in learning and preparing for future jobs, but schools need to use it as a tool that’s part of the curriculum, and not as entertainment, she said. She worries that access to immersive VR could deepen the gap between students with access to the latest technology and those with limited access to digital tools.

Martin said his district, for example, would never have the resources to send biology students on a field trip to the ocean, but with virtual reality, they can have a much more memorable experience than they would if they were using more traditional means of learning, like watching videos or looking at pictures of the ocean.

“We have limited time. We have limited funds,” he said. “Ideally, we would give kids a lot more experiential education but I think that virtual reality is going to help us really bridge that need we have.”

About 950 students are enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade in Hawley, a town of just over 2,000 people a half-hour east of Moorhead.

“I had one girl almost in tears yesterday, because she loves space and she’s flying through space and looking at different planets and stars that I don’t know anything about,” said Aaron Haugen, a business teacher at Hawley High School. He sees his students acclimating quickly to the technology already.

“I think it’s really piquing curiosity, which is key. If you get a kid curious about something, then they’ll want to learn,” he said.

It’s not clear how many schools are embracing virtual reality as firmly as the Hawley district. And the Minnesota Department of Education doesn’t track implementation, according to a spokesperson.

Hoisington estimates thousands of schools across the country are using Google Cardboard goggles, which cost a few dollars each and can be used with a smartphone, but only a few hundred have an immersive virtual reality lab like Hawley, using specially designed computers that connect to $500 goggles.

The Hawley VR lab was installed by ByteSpeed, a Moorhead company that sells the systems nationwide. Jensen said having the company nearby will allow his district to experiment and try new software. While he would like to see more research on how virtual reality affects learning, he’s convinced the technology has a big role to play in the future of education.

“We know we’ll probably stub our toe along the way, as we do with anything new,” he said, “but it’s fun to go into the lab and see the kids and how excited they were.”