How a North Philly school is using its new VR lab - Technical.ly Philly

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Feb. 27, 2018 7:49 am

How a North Philly school is using its new VR lab

Teachers at Mercy Career & Technical High School hope the technology helps students better connect with learning materials.

Students go inside the human body during Biology class.

(Video by Roberto Torres)

“I felt like I could touch everything,” said Isaac Davids, 15, right after slipping off a virtual reality headset.

By “everything” he meant the cells and organisms that came alive before his eyes in The Body VR: Journey Inside a Cell, a virtual reality experience that takes users inside the human body. Young Isaac was one of the first students at Mercy Career & Technical High School — a Catholic vocational school in Allegheny West — to try out the school’s virtual reality lab, which opened on February 15.

The lab, built with funding from two local foundations, features nine HTC Vive headsets and high-performing CPUs running mostly free VR content from the Steam platform. Catherine Glatts, Vice Principal for Technology and Career & Technical Education, told Technical.ly that building the lab was a school-wide effort: Students from the computer technician program assembled the PCs, while kids from the building trades track upgraded the room’s electric system to handle the load.

Initially conceived for Mercy’s science and health occupation students specifically, the programming at the lab is available to the school’s 320 students.

“As we become more familiar with the technology we see it expanding to other programs,” said the Vice Principal.

(Reporter’s note: I tried on the VR set and got a tour of the human body. It’s really, really different than my high school biology class.)

This reporter using the technology at the VR Lab.

This reporter using the technology at the VR Lab. (Photo by Kelley Simon)

Biology teacher Kathleen Logan, 24, said the VR content is helping students better connect to what they’re studying while helping them become more familiar with technology as a tool for learning.

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“Biology is a lot of material and vocabulary,” said Logan. “VR really helps to make a connection with what we’re talking about. It’s putting all the parts in context.”

Students wearing virtual reality headsets.

At Mercy Career & Technical High School’s VR Lab.

It’s a collaborative project, really, no different than dissecting a frog. Kids help each other recalibrate. From my brief time at Mercy, it felt like VR can be a learning tool that connects students, rather than isolating them in headsets.

Familiarity with tech, Logan said, is also part of the equation.

“No matter what career path they choose, this experience will absolutely help them in whatever they do,” the teacher said.

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