Most lab assignments in Evan Woodward’s classroom at Hanford High School require students to put on eyewear.
That usually means safety googles, but on Tuesday it meant 3-D glasses. And instead of burners and beakers, students used a special stylus to perform the lab assignment, manipulating a model of a glucose molecule displayed on special screens.
“It’s so cool how you can do that,” said freshman Opal Koeppel, 14, as shed moved a molecule to count its components as part of her assignment.
The Richland School District recently acquired 100 stations from 3-D learning platform zSpace for its middle and high schools as well as alternative education program Three Rivers HomeLink.
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The technology gives students the ability to do virtual dissections, experiment with physics and even delve into the interior of a volcano, company officials said. District administrators said teachers were impressed by the technology’s ability during demonstrations.
At $3,500 to $4,000 per station, zSpace doesn’t come cheap. It also comes with a learning curve for students, and the relatively new technology doesn’t have all the capabilities teachers want. But Woodward said he’s already seen more benefits than drawbacks.
“Any time you can tie technology to learning, it engages kids,” he said. “This is a little bit more in your face.”
The district began looking at new technology as part of the development process for a new middle school scheduled to be built in West Richland in the coming years.
There is interest in potentially giving that school a more specific science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, focus, said Assistant Superintendent Todd Baddley. When zSpace reached out about its virtual reality system, teachers who attended the demonstration were intrigued, Baddley said.
“It’s really about being able to design labs and get into the students’ world,” Baddley said.
The district and company negotiated a deal for a number of units to split between the secondary schools. zSpace also is providing an intern to help monitor the technology and generate data about its use and where improvements are needed, said regional sales director Ron Kiser.
Kiser said he does “get hit with the price question quite a bit,” adding that zSpace is an expensive approach to promoting STEM education. But he expects the price to go down as production ramps up and school districts have means outside of state funding to pay for the systems, such as grants.
District teachers were recently trained on the technology, and it wasn’t scheduled to be rolled out for students until after winter break. But Woodward, who teaches biology and chemistry, opted to dive into it last week with his students to gauge their reaction and see how well it can fit into his teaching.
The first days weren’t completely smooth sailing. A few of the stations had technical difficulties. Along with feeling their way around on how to use the technology during the molecule lab, a few student groups actually saw their model disappear from the screen with no clear understanding of how to get it back.
“It’s fun but confuddling,” Opal said, coining her own portmanteau to describe the experience. “But it’s cool you can manipulate it.”
Woodward said the technology already offers a lot of possibilities in modeling physics experiments, geological explorations and other biological investigations, which aren’t always easy to make engaging to students. He said he was disappointed there wasn’t more modeling for chemical reactions.
But just as the new technology has given him a new way to teach his students, he’s looking forward to zSpace providing new features further down the road.
“What I’m interested in is when kids can create their own stuff,” he said. “That will show true learning and take kids to the next level.”