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From A Refugee Camp To The Streets Of Barcelona, VR Takes Students Where Field Trips Can’t

Joaquin Gonzalez
90.5 WESA
Students in a Spanish class at Cornell High School in Coraopolis, Pa. use Google virtual reality headsets during an activity. Via Google's Expeditions app, the students are taking a virtual tour of Barcelona, Spain.

It's not unusual for students at Cornell School District to be in two places at once.

The district, about 30 minutes west of Pittsburgh, uses virtual reality headsets to enhance student learning. The headsets allow students in the classroom to experience a simulated presence in a real-world or imaginary environment using visuals and audio.

Kris Hupp, the district's director of technology and instructional innovation, said the VR experiences are a cost-effective way to take students to places and situations that they might not normally access with a field trip, adding that they tend to be more immersive than a typical documentary.

"A really interesting one ... was a [simulation of] a refugee camp in Syria," said Hupp. "The students were able to follow a child, go through their daily life, go into their home and then as this child is narrating what their life is like, actually turn around and look at the different rooms [in the house]."

Another example is Project Voyage, a computer-generated VR environment created by students at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, where students can learn about western Pennsylvania's ecosystem while interacting through each other using animated avatars, similar to video game characters.

"They're seeing the woods, the streams, the rivers, the different types of plants and animals that we have in this region," said Hupp.

Hupp said that students in grades 7 through 12 in the district have access to three kinds of headsets, two made by Google and one by the toy manufacturer Mattel, which are used in tandem with smartphone apps. He said the technology is mostly used in social studies, foreign language and science classes.

The district originally started its VR program through a STEAM grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.