It’s one thing to open up a science book and see photos of the human heart. It’s another to hold and feel a heart through a computer program.
That’s the kind of things students can do at Summit Elementary School, where a functional virtual reality lab is open to them.
The McComb School District’s zSpace STEM lab – for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is housed aboard two recycled standard school buses.
Through the magic of 3-D glasses and state-of-the-art computer programs, students – and adults – are stepping into other worlds of learning.
McComb’s STEM lab is the only one of its kind in Mississippi and students and teachers and bystanders find it nothing short of amazing.
“What I think it does more than anything is it really brings the world to them,” said Carmelle Ellis, a teacher practitioner and STEM teacher. “It opens a different mindset to students that otherwise they wouldn’t have had.”
Actually, McComb has added another initial to the program – “A” for art, making it STEAM.
Ellis also oversees Project Lead the Way, which develops STEM curricula for use by elementary, middle and high schools. Lead the Way also provides professional development training for instructors.
The two back-to-back specially outfitted buses aren’t the “yellow dogs” familiar to most people. These buses have been transformed into a high-tech 3D learning lab through zSpace.
The lab is one component in the district’s first steps into student-centered learning, but it’s a game-changer, teachers say.
Donnisha Jackson, a second-grade teacher, transferred from Higgins Middle School to Summit Elementary. Though the lab wasn’t functional the entire year, Jackson has seen what it can do.
“Kids get so excited when they see all the functionalities of it,” Jackson said. “Once I got my training, kids did their initial training on it. They could probably teach me, after they started exploring it.”
Getting acquainted with zSpace requires students to learn how to use the stylus that brings computer images to life.
“Students spend time exploring animals and parts of the plant,” she said. “With 3-D figures, they can explore.”
So, too, have staff members.
“This past year has been an exploration, but we are actually seeing the capabilities,” Jackson said.
With zSpace, there’s no working with earthworms, frogs or other animals. Through the 3D program, dissection is electronic.
“We can introduce dissection to students younger, and they get a real life vision of it,” Jackson said. “It helps when we’re teaching life cycles. It’s never too early to introduce a child to things, but it has to be age-appropriate. We don’t get too deep into human anatomy.”
Jackson said zSpace “blows their minds.”
“Most have never seen the heart in its real form. They think it looks like a valentine,” she said. “With zSpace, they can hold it in their hands and feel it. It opens the opportunity to introduce the veins and arteries.”
There’s still much to explore with zSpace.
“We’ve had time to look at it and play with it. Now we must see how we can get the most out of it,” she said. “It does no good to have it if we can’t use it. It’s one of the best things they could have gotten at Summit. It’s such an eye-opener. I hope they realize how fortunate they are. The exposure is life-changing.”
Summit Elementary uses the student-centered learning approach. It has 10 classrooms that let student “scholars” learn at their own pace in comfortable environments that include bean bag chairs and couches inside brightly colored, themed classroom “learning labs.”
During the pilot year in 2015-16, some 240 students in grades K-4 attended Summit Elementary. This year, that many more students in grades 1-5 will enter the new learning environment. No kindergarten will be taught at Summit this year.
Despite the non-traditional classrooms and teaching styles, nothing at Summit Academy is quite as head-turning as what happens on the STEM buses.
On board the buses are 12 computer zSpace modules that can each accommodate three students at a time.
Principal Lakya Washington said students this year will spend 45 minutes every other day in the lab, where learning will come to life.
Suppose students are learning about the human body. With zSpace, they won’t be looking at a book with pictures of the heart or other organs. Instead, with the aid of a stylus and special 3D glasses, they’ll be able to interact with the heart, watching as it beats.
With the program, scholars can see what happens inside a volcano, learn about the earth’s makeup, go into space, dissect virtual creatures, see a butterfly transform from its cocoon. They can learn about dinosaurs and airplanes, take engines apart, go under the sea. They can study human and animal bone structure, the body’s systems, and so much more.
With the glasses and stylus, zSpace literally draws students into subject matter.
Developed for the Department of Defense, zSpace rolled into select California classrooms several years ago. Now, the program is in schools nationwide, helping not only eager youngsters learn about math, science, engineering and technology, but aiding medical school students, too.
“It is amazing to see what it can do and what students can do with this,” Washington said. “Our scholars can not only see an image, but they can rotate it in simulated models.”
In a demonstration one recent afternoon, McComb student Taylor Washington, Lakya’s daughter, immersed herself in the dissection of an earthworm. She deftly pointed a stylus at the computer screen and directed it to a part of the worm. Through the power of 3-D, the worm’s body lifted and separated with Taylor manipulating it.
Nearby, Eli Brumfield dissected a cactus, looking at it from inside and out and peering into its parts. When done, Brumfield deftly drew the sections back together with the stylus.
Ellis said zSpace is all about education.
“Everyone is excited about it,” she said.
Dissection of plants and animals is particularly popular.
With zSpace, there’s no real animal to work with. It’s all computer-generated.
“They can pull an image out, look at the back and front, in the eyes and go in depth,” Ellis said. “They can study (everything from) animals to machinery. They can actually open up an engine.”
Ellis also teaches at Kennedy Early Childhood Center, where she is in a traditional classroom.
But, at Summit, the bus is her classroom.
“The kids’ excitement just doesn’t die,” she said. “The longer they are on it, the more they love it.”
Franklin’s Lab (with a nod to Benjamin Franklin) and Newton’s Park are two of the zSpace programs that get a lot of use in math.
But is the fully loaded computer technology too detailed for children?
Ellis said absolutely not.
“I never underestimate the kids,” she said.
With her “grids and games” curriculum, Ellis said some kids are learning computer coding.
“Kids actually took what I taught them and they built and built and built on it until they had animations that did everything they taught it,”?she said. “I can introduce them to the basics and they can build on it.”
The staff at Summit don’t take the opportunity they have been given lightly.
“I never thought something like this would happen in Mississippi. Period. We’re known as a ‘poor state.’ We’ve been blessed to have this magnitude of technology. We were the only city in the state of Mississippi that had a full-fledged zSpace lab.”
Turnabout is fair play. The systems were installed and developed by ViziTech USA from Georgia. “The zSpace installers were so impressed by the converted buses, they took photos to take back to Atlanta. “They had never seen that and they just could not wrap their minds around it,” Ellis said.
Ellis believes the sky is the limit.
“Our futures will be bright. This will bring dreams to children. This changes the language, if you will, of children. They can talk about things on a day-to-day basis they otherwise wouldn’t be talking about.
“Think about the word metamorphosis,” she said. “It’s not a word you ordinarily hear. ZSpace changes their conversation and higher thinking. That’s what I love about it.”