Hawkeye STEM trailer brings virtual learning to schools

posted on Monday, March 7, 2016 in  College News

By: Andrew Wind, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

 JESUP—Akela Warm clicked a button on a stylus and pointed it at a three dimensional image of a beating heart on a computer screen.

A line extended from the stylus, which functions like a computer mouse, across the screen to the heart. The Jesup High School sophomore, who was wearing 3-D glasses, virtually picked up the heart and began looking at it from all angles.

“I can feel the heart beat,” she said, through the stylus. By moving a camera icon into the heart with the stylus, Warm also could get a view on the screen of the heart’s interior.

Warm’s science class was visiting Hawkeye Community College’s STEM Mobile Learning Lab, which is parked at their school all week. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The sides of the semi trailer are extended out to create a virtual reality classroom space.

Jesup is the second school to have a visit from the learning lab. The first was Denver Community Schools, which hosted the trailer earlier this month.

Along with anatomy, groups of students working at computer stations explored gravity, the laws of motion, electrical currents, circuits, building design and more. In the center of the trailer other students gathered around a table wearing 3-D glasses as teacher Mandy Gleiter led them through some of the program’s virtual dissections, projected on a large screen.

Topics students can explore include human anatomy, botany, zoology, earth science, microbiology, chemistry, engineering and paleontology. In each program, Gleiter can instantly dissect the subject — whether it be the human brain and nervous system, a snake, a woolly mammoth or the earth. That allows students to see the layers of the earth or the mammoth’s skeletal structure, for example.

The programs were created by Cyber Science, a Cedar Rapids company, in partnership with California-based zSpace.

Jill Dobson, Hawkeye’s STEM coordinator, said the semi trailer and the software system were purchased “as an outreach vehicle” for the college. “We thought it would be a great opportunity for us to go out to schools and have experiences that are outside of their regular curriculum,” she said. The learning lab is intended to introduce the virtual reality technology and “tweak their mindset” about how difficult STEM fields would be as a career.

Hawkeye’s initial investment in the semi trailer and virtual reality technology was about $90,000 in Iowa Workforce Development funds allocated to the college.

Dobson noted it is important to get more students interested in exploring STEM because of worker shortages in those fields. She plans to do her part to spread the word.

“I hope to have this vehicle out two or three times per month. That would be our goal,” she said.

Gleiter and teacher Ann Rigdon, who are both middle school science teachers in Jesup, received training from Hawkeye to lead students through sessions along with other area educators. There also is a 3-D printer component in the learning lab that has not yet been set up.

Dobson said teachers could connect the printers to the computers, allowing them to create three-dimensional copies of whatever the students are studying out of a waxy filament. For example, she noted, a copy of the aorta could be made for students studying the heart.

Back at one of the computer stations, Warm and her partner Kylie Wilberding agreed it was cool to explore the heart using the virtual reality technology. Warm admitted, though, she didn’t know much about the different parts of the heart.

Gleiter said their objective at this point is to pique students’ interest — “just to give them the experience, the exposure” to virtual reality technology. The school district is bringing all fifth- through 12th-grade students who currently have a science class through the trailer for a 45-minute class period. That includes everyone except a small number of high school students.

She said that’s all they will have time for this week. Students will get a lesson connected to what they’re studying in science class next time the trailer returns — “if we can get it back,” said Gleiter.


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