Learning for the 'virtual' world

March 27, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

"Virtual instruction" is set to become a regular part of learning this fall in a Baltimore County school.

The school district has teamed up with universities, defense contractors and a video game developer for help with a high-tech program designed to breathe life into textbook lessons and challenge students with the kind of problem-solving that employers might expect.

"We wanted students to have an experience that would be more typical of what they'd have, hands-on, in the real world," said Maria Lowry, principal of Chesapeake High School, which is to pilot a new virtual classroom. "We're trying to bring the outside in."

The initiative, for which nearly $1 million is requested in the next fiscal year, is part of the school system's effort to equip students with 21st-century skills. Teachers can use simulations of real-life situations and problems to help students apply what they learn. The planned classroom of computer work stations and a wall of large screens for group lessons is believed to be a first in the area.

School officials recently got a preview at the Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory. In a dark room illuminated by five 70-inch screens, they went on a ride - alternately in an ATV-like vehicle, a boat and an aircraft - through the sprawling simulated landscape of Mount St. Helens in Washington, as part of a rescue expedition.

Students doing the program would stumble upon questions and clues requiring knowledge in botany, meteorology and math, said David Peloff, program director for emerging technologies at Hopkins' Center for Technology in Education.

Under a federal grant and with the laboratory, the center developed the learning adventure, which Deep Creek Middle, a Chesapeake feeder school, is to try this spring.

"Using 3-D simulation technologies that are common in more technical fields, and bringing those technologies to kids, we just think that will provide them so many new opportunities to learn things in ways that professionals are learning them," Peloff said.

Several area districts employ some virtual instruction in their classrooms. Students in Anne Arundel County use sites that simulate experiments and present animations of scientific phenomena, said Rochelle Slutskin, coordinator of science. The districtwide program is in its second year, she said.

In Howard County, teachers incorporate virtual instruction in science, finance and computer classes, with exercises that involve constructing desktop and laptop computers or performing blood transfusions on patients, according to district officials.

Baltimore County's virtual program is starting with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math - or STEM - but Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said he wants to expand its applications to all content areas.

"We're talking about developing a work force for the future," Hairston said. "And with globalization, in terms of skilled workers for the future, the American child must be equally prepared to compete."

Paul D. Coverstone, who teaches at McDaniel College and specializes in instructional design for online learning, said virtual instruction will eventually become commonplace, particularly as bandwidth capability grows.

"There is no doubt that technology can be a strong adjunct to the learning process," said Coverstone, who is acting chief information officer for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Still, he said, using such tools should not be about technology for its own sake, but tied to specific objectives.

Michael Wilmoth, a Chesapeake High senior interested in robotics and mechanical engineering, said the virtual program would better prepare students.

"It kind of gives me a bit more application, gives me more of an idea of what the job will be like," he said.

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, working with the school system, see the virtual concept as a way to spark interest in science and engineering.

"When students are in school and they're learning about engineering, math and science, it's very abstract," said Stephanie Hill, vice president of Lockheed's MS2 Integrated Defense Technologies. "If they can actually apply the skills to a real problem that's exciting, with real engineers ... then it will encourage the students to not only be interested in engineering and technology but to stay interested."

Mentoring helps bring engineering to life, but employees can only spend so much time away from the office, said Ted E. Imes Sr., director of corporate citizenship for Northrop's electronic systems sector. Through a virtual environment, they can work with students without having to leave the workplace, he and Hill said.

At Chesapeake, a STEM academy, students and teachers have already met people from both companies in lunchtime "chat and chews" and classroom visits. And teachers can get practical experience during Lockheed's summer externships, said Demetrice Smith and Thomas Bullerman, who have done them."Being able to have hands-on work is very helpful," senior Victoria Wallace said. "We're coming out of high school with some skills that people go into their freshman year of college to acquire."

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