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South Valley Journal

Time travel made possible in middle school classroom

Aug 23, 2018 06:15PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Teachers of all subjects can utilize virtual reality technology. (Jet Burnham/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Rebecca Kirkman’s students travel long distances to study history, though they never leave the classroom. 

“I can’t personally take the kids back in time to go and discover WWI trenches or have them look at Anasazi ruins because that’s a little out of our budget,” said Kirkman. “But virtual reality is something I can bring directly into the classroom to enrich students of all ages and all groups and give them an experience. A lot of times, that’s what helps them learn—getting that experience.” 

Through a Digital Teaching and Learning Grant, South Hills Middle School purchased 15 Nearpod goggles and registered for access to the Nearpod experiences library. Kirkman has also scoured YouTube for videos her students can experience on classroom tablets and personal cell phones. 

“We’ve been able to find some really enriching activities with our students with virtual reality,” said Kirkman. “I try to find creative ways to pull it in to the lessons.” 

When her students study immigration, they take a virtual tour of Ellis Island. They also tour the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Kirkman knows many students will never travel to these locations in real life.

The students can also be immersed in historical experiences. Instead of reading about it, students can virtually explore battle trenches while they wander around the classroom with the goggles over their eyes. 

Rhylee Tatton, last year’s student, said exploring WWI trenches virtually, she recognized the different kinds of weapons they’d discussed in class. She even noticed photographs of soldiers’ families among their belongings which made it more real to her. 

“The details really helped it come to life,” said Rhylee. “When you’re learning in a classroom and you’re just reading the articles and looking at the pictures, it’s hard to realize this event actually happened. When you’re looking with the virtual reality, it really opens your eyes in knowing exactly what it looked like and you can experience what happens.” 

Another student, Emma Sanez, said they had learned in class about tanks and their role in the war. In her simulation, she saw how the tanks were made and was able to walk around and explore them from various angles. She said she gained an understanding of the personal experiences of soldiers.

“In the moment, you can feel what they felt like,” she said. “I was in the part where they were shooting at me and ganging up on me, and I really felt that fear.” 

Mari Loeffler flew a fighter plane in her virtual experience last year. When she heard and felt explosions happening around her and saw smoke outside the cockpit window, she became emotionally involved. 

“In seventh grade, it was textbooks, and you sat at your desk and read and read, and it was so boring,” she said. She prefers the hands-on activities Kirkman provided in her eighth-grade class. 

Rhylee said Kirkman often incorporates creative projects and activities into her subject.

“She teaches it a different way than I’ve ever had someone teach it to me,” she said. “It’s really a hands-on experience, and that really helps you grow a passion for it.” 

Emma said Kirkman makes the subject of history exciting. 

“She brings this energy to the class that you don’t really expect in history, and it makes it more interesting,” she said. “She gets us moving, she gets us talking, she gets us learning.” 

Kirkman said her students are comfortable using phones and tablets and love using them with the virtual reality experiences. She said it is engages students in learning, and she believes engaged students learn better. 

“I can just see their little synapses in their brain making connections,” she said. 

Since introducing the virtual reality equipment into her classroom, she has seen improvement in test scores. But that’s not her goal in incorporating the virtual experiences. 

“For me, it’s not about the test scores, it’s about they’ve gained this real-life experience,” said Kirkman.