Students visiting a virtual environment at Johns Hopkins
In classrooms every day, educators face the same challenge: how to engage young people to master increasingly difficult material and tasks – and even enjoy the process. At its core, this is what teaching and learning are all about.
Outside the classroom, students use video games to win races, fight battles, and manage societies. Many of these “games” are actually simulations that take users inside a virtual reality, allowing them to experience another place or time and understand this new environment by controlling it and maneuvering through it.
Not unlike educators, game developers are constantly looking for new ways to get players to confront information, assimilate it, and use it to master a series of tasks before they move on to the next challenge and the next degree of difficulty.
In Baltimore County Public Schools, students’ gaming experiences outside the classroom are coming together with the world inside the classroom – in a big way.
Superintendent Hairston and Chesapeake High principal Maria Lowry pose with the first students trained in the virtual learning
Beginning this school year, students at Chesapeake High School can enter a virtual learning environment – created through a groundbreaking partnership by area universities, private software companies, leading military contractors, and the school system – to study subjects such as environmental science and geometry.
“The most natural way of learning is by doing,” Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joe A. Hairston says, “and virtual simulations allow students to do things in environments they might not otherwise have access to. There are so many benefits to this for our students. We know that this nation needs more scientists and engineers. This is an opportunity to help make science and mathematics more practical and interesting for our students and to help them better understand possible careers in these fields. We also know that all students, regardless of their career paths, will need to be able to access and analyze information and think strategically. As [famed game designer] Sid Meier notes, ‘a game is a sequence of interesting decisions.’”
An illustration of the virtual learning environment at Chesapeake High School
According to the George Lucas Education Foundation, “…technology provides opportunities to use such important science of learning principles as pre-existing knowledge, active learning, mental models, transfer, and learning for understanding.”
The new virtual learning environment at Chesapeake was collaboratively designed and developed by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Technology in Education and Applied Physics Laboratory. The work is an outgrowth of a recently completed U.S. Department of Education “Star Schools” grant focused on the potential of gaming and simulation technologies to provide contextual, active, and effective learning experiences for a new generation of students. In addition, a wider collaboration involving the major defense contractors Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, the University of Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, and companies such as Breakaway Games and TrainingPort Strategies are investigating more ways to utilize virtual environments and other cutting-edge technologies for the benefit of BCPS students.
“We are tremendously fortunate to have, in our own backyard, renowned higher education and industry leaders willing to share time and talent to develop this collaboration,” says Dr. Hairston.
While simulations and serious games have been used to varying degrees in Baltimore County Public Schools and other school systems, Dr. Hairston didn’t believe that it was happening fast enough or in enough depth to prepare students for the future. Building on some of his longheld interests, he convened business and higher education stakeholders to collaborate on this project beginning in February 2008.
Chesapeake High student manipulates controls in the virtual learning classroom.
Renovations to transform a classroom at Chesapeake into a virtual learning lab were completed this summer, all Chesapeake teachers and a group of representative students completed training in the spring and summer, and Chesapeake High School Principal Maria Lowry expects the entire student body to receive initial training in the virtual learning environment over the course of the 2009-2010 school year. Students in environmental science and geometry, about 25 percent of the school enrollment, will receive a more extensive level of exposure to the virtual lab. Beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, the lab with also be used for social studies and English instruction.
“The first 3-D virtual environment the students at Chesapeake will experience is a geographically accurate terrain model of the area surrounding Mount St. Helens [the volcano in Washington state],” explains Dave Peloff, program director for emerging technologies at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education. “While traversing through the environment, in a vehicle that can morph from aircraft to ground vehicle to boat, the students will encounter learning challenges involving virtual characters, animals, and other 3D objects specific to the curricular content being addressed. Two-dimensional resources such as documents, instant messages, photographs, and Web sites can also be integrated into learning modules.”
The environments will all be modeled after real places using geo-spatial data so that when students drive or fly through, they will be seeing the environment as it actually is. Additional environments will be created over time. The next is most likely to be the moon.
According to Peloff, the simulation framework, along with a back-end curriculum integration tool, will provide a great deal of flexibility and the capacity for customization. “Though Chesapeake is starting with science and math, new simulations, scenarios, and narratives are in the works that address each of the other curriculum areas,” Peloff says.
The project has garnered national attention – including articles in Education Week’s Digital Directions, a webinar coordinated by educational publisher Pearson, and a mention in the annual address by the president of the International Society for Technology in Education – because it is so forward-thinking and because of the depth and breadth of the collaboration behind it.
“A lot of people are interested in leveraging the power of video games and simulations for training and educational purposes. This has been happening for a long time in the military and in medicine. But in the world of K-12 education, what Baltimore County Public Schools is doing is definitely forging new ground,” says Peloff.
Joe Biglin, founder of TrainingPort Strategies, LLC, and a co-founder of Breakaway Games, describes the project as “a giant leap forward in utilizing technology in education” because it is curriculum-driven. “What has been happening is that we have tried to take existing formats, even commercial off-the-shelf games, and use them in classrooms. That was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. What we are doing now is the opposite. We are starting with what it is we want students to learn and then developing lessons that are more visual and computer-based. It very much relates to what is happening in education today. The way most adults went through school was related to a theory called behavioralism, which basically said, ‘I am going to teach you something in this class and something else in this other class, and one day, when you grow up, you will figure out how to put it all together and apply it.’ Now education is much more about constructivism – about beginning with a problem and figuring out how to solve it, about proving competency by demonstrating it in your actions and decisions – as you do in gaming.”
Peloff agrees, noting that technology alone is never the answer or a replacement for an effective teacher. “But I do believe that gaming and simulation technologies can transform some learning experiences into something much richer and more engaging,” says Peloff. “And this is just the beginning. The use of virtual and augmented reality could revolutionize the way a wide variety of subjects are taught.”
According to Lowry, the development process for the initiative began with looking at the curriculum for gaps and for where students were losing interest. “We all know that we all learn better from hands-on activities. In an environment like this, students take ownership of their own learning. The virtual learning environment provides us the opportunity to cultivate dimensions of interest and interactivity that we don’t always have. The possibilities are endless.”
The school system’s larger Virtual Learning Initiative
The virtual learning environment at Chesapeake High School is a tangible outgrowth of Dr. Hairston’s focus on increasing academic rigor and expanding educational opportunities for all students.
Under Dr. Hairston’s direction, representatives of the school system’s Curriculum and Instruction and Business Services staff meet regularly with business and higher education leaders to continue development of the school system’s larger initiative to effectively integrate technology into instruction.
Other projects under development include an environmental science “game” using X-Box technology. Through this game, students will be able to control various components of the environment and then witness the impact on all of the other components. This project is being led by Dr. Kathleen Harmeyer, program director of Simulation and Digital Entertainment at University of Baltimore, and developed by graduate students.
“With all of our projects,” Biglin says, “What we are looking at are ways to engage more students in more schools, not necessarily plans to replicate the Chesapeake model in those schools. We are looking for example at different scale platforms that will allow students to create games, to become software developers, in addition to being software users.”