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Virtual Reality Opens an Exciting Doorway to Social Studies for Students, Offers a New Teaching Tool for Educators

Krista Hall feels almost weightless as she finds herself suspended in mid-air.

“Oh wow, this is really fun!” Krista, a fifth-grader at Ridge Spring-Monetta Elementary School, squeals with excitement. “I can’t believe this!”

Her excitement is understandable. She is soaring 400 feet over the Colorado River.

Of course, she is only figuratively in mid-air. In actuality, Krista and her classmates in Mrs. Amy Wolfe’s social studies class are merely experiencing the joys of a new learning tool in Aiken County Public Schools – virtual reality (VR).

Daniel Parent is the K-5 Social Studies Curriculum Interventionist for Aiken County Public Schools, and serves as the student’s guide through the world of virtual reality. He uses this session to give them a clearer perspective on the challenges early settlers faced on the frontier as they traveled west on the Oregon Trail. Over the summer, Parent gathered a number of images on location in the west using a 360-degree camera and drone to capture many of the impressive images Krista and her classmates marvel at.

First, he gives the students instructions on using the VR goggles that will transport them west in an instant. He tells them to stand with their legs apart to have good balance, and not to touch one another. The first student dons a pair of goggles and wobbles about in his new VR world – mouth open in wonder. His classmates explode with laughter as the fun – and the learning – begins.

“Look at the mountains, and how high they are,” Parent instructs them expertly. “Look at the rivers, and how wide they are. There were no bridges back then that they could use to cross the river, so they had to find places where it was shallow enough to cross with their wagons. Looking at these obstacles, you can see what a difficult journey it was.”

The first group of Mrs. Wolfe’s students begin to wind down their trips to allow others their opportunity to look into the distant past with a newfound clarity.

“This is so much fun!” another student exclaims.

Who knew learning about social studies could be so exciting?

A NEW WAY TO LOOK INTO THE PAST

Daniel Parent has always been fascinated with the people and places that fill history books, but for many students, appreciating the exploits of those who died hundreds of years ago, and events which transpired in cities now lost to time, is a real challenge.

Like other contemporary educators, Parent has learned to harness the power of technology to open a new pathway to the past, one that enhances the student experience, expands learning opportunities, and, it is hoped, supports new academic growth and achievement as well.

“As a teacher, I have to remember that with as many books as I’ve read and as in-depth as I have been into these topics, this is the first time these students are talking about these things,” Parent says. “We hope this activity will give these students a better understanding of these topics at a much earlier age. By the time they reach middle school and high school we want them to have a much deeper understanding of these topics, and be able to utilize a more descriptive writing style as they are able to pull more from their experience with virtual reality.”

Back in the classroom, the students are overcome with amazement.

“I saw some stuff, and it was awesome,” student Reed Tibbs says excitedly. “I saw buffalo, I went inside a train, I saw the arch in St. Louis and a bunch of the cactus in the desert. The coolest thing was being over the river.”

Gabby Valeriano was fascinated by a frontier classroom, which she was able to explore.

“My favorite thing was the classroom, because I was very interested to see what they had written on the board,” Gabby said. “I was very tempted to sit in one of those desks. Their desks were very different, and they used chalk boards.”

King Etheridge was shaken by his journey early on, but he was also left wanting more.

“I’ve never been that high before in my whole life,” King said breathlessly. “I was scared at first, but I want to see it again.”

Ms. Wolfe takes it all in with a smile. Her students could not possibly be more engaged in the subject material.

“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” she asks.

NOT A GAME – A DELIBERATE LEARNING EXPERIENCE

The journey Mrs. Wolfe’s fifth-graders took along the Oregon Trail, through the “Gateway to the West” better known as the St. Louis arch, and across the mighty Colorado River was not taken on a whim. It is part of an intentional plan to support students in specific areas of need.

Parent gathered recent testing data to see where students in Kindergarten through Fifth Grade were struggling on their social studies standardized tests.

“Last year on the SC PASS assessment Westward Expansion was where we saw our lowest scores, and I couldn’t figure out why because it’s so exciting,” Parent explained. “Then again, if a student has never been out west and seen the mountains and the deserts and rivers like the Colorado River and the Snake River and how wide they are, they have no idea about the obstacles people faced. Now, having the opportunity to see a wagon up close, and see that they were not that big and why settlers had to walk beside them for thousands of miles, to me that will give them a deeper understanding.”

Teacher Amy Wolfe agrees. While the students are taking their virtual journeys, she posts questions on the smart board which they are to answer and incorporate in a short essay following their journey to the west.

  • What were the various reasons Americans moved west?
  • What were the obstacles and risks they faced?
  • How were these obstacles overcome?
  • How did these experiences shape the American character of “rugged individualism” and can-do-spirit?

This exercise in virtual reality, while fun, will also better inform the class discussions she has planned for this section of material on Westward Expansion.

“This is great because it extends their understanding of what we are already learning in class in a real and tangible way,” Wolfe explains. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to understand how hard it was to travel back then, so seeing the mountains, rivers and deserts in this way will really allow the material to stick. Obviously, they are really enjoying themselves as well, so it’s a win-win.”

When the journey west finally concludes, Parent compliments Ms. Wolfe’s students on their good behavior, and promises to return in the future if they work hard.

“If you continue to work hard and do what Ms. Wolfe asks you to do, I’ll come back and take you to some places that will really knock your socks off,” he says. “I want to take you to places you are going to learn about in middle school. I want to take you to the Great Wall of China, let you stand on top of a pyramid in Egypt, go under water along the Great Barrier Reef, go to Africa, and Alaska to see glaciers. I will take you around the world to the places you will be learning about.”

The students can barely contain themselves, wiggling in their desks as their eyes widen. One of them is already dreaming even bigger dreams – he wants to visit the moon.

EXPANDING THE VIRTUAL REALITY EXPERIENCE ACROSS THE DISTRICT

It’s ironic that the first social studies project taken on by Parent would involve expansion, because that is exactly what he hopes to do with his VR project in the future.

“You see how excited the students are, so that’s the goal. The applications for this in science are also huge.”

Parent is looking forward to expanding his inventory of slides to include other areas of emphasis at different grade levels that have also been identified through assessments. He wants to virtually enhance such topics as Jamestown, Native American culture, the Founding Fathers, and expand compilations for World War I and World War II, which he has already created.

“We want to address those areas where teachers are telling us their students are not connecting well with the material,” Parent says. “Teachers want to know what we can create to help bring this material to life for their students. It’s more than just sending pictures and a link to a YouTube video. Teachers want their students to be able to experience the material virtually, and more and more of them are jumping at this opportunity. It’s exciting.”

“It’s also much cheaper than a field trip, and much safer,” Parent adds. “This is the future.”


LINK TO DISTRICT'S PRESS RELEASE: 2019 PR SOCIAL STUDIES VR

ACPSD Communications Department