Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Los Altos School District prides itself on being a leader in educational technology. The district’s latest venture into the virtual world uses immersive technology to enhance math lessons for eighth graders.
Selected eighth-grade Common Core classes at Blach Intermediate and Egan Junior High schools include a new pilot program that uses spatial reasoning and experiential learning to reinforce algebra lessons. Each module puts students in a story where they encounter real-world problems using mathematical reasoning.
The lessons are offered through Prisms of Reality, a San Francisco-based education technology company that develops virtual reality games that align with Common Core standards in math.
In a recent class at Egan led by teacher Kristopher Asuncion, students donned Pico Neo headsets and found themselves in a control room trying to stop two planes from crashing along their respective flight paths. To do this, the students used systems of linear equations to identify when and where the flights would collide.
Introduction to the curriculum
Administrators were intrigued by the idea of VR learning when they heard about another Bay Area district introducing the program to students. When LASD STEM Coordinator Karen Wilson tried out the technology for herself in a training session, she immediately knew it made sense to continue the program for LASD students.
“When I tried it myself, I found it to be amazing,” she said. “You’re really immersed in the experience, solving real-world problems.”
Each school received a set of 24 Pico Neo 3 headsets along with accompanying handheld controllers to share between two eighth-grade Common Core classrooms. VR lessons—six in total over the course of the year—come at the end of the unit and serve to reinforce the math concepts taught in the classroom.
Participating teachers were trained in September and taught their first lesson a few months later. The first implementation of the innovative technology in the classroom was the Prisms tutorial, which acclimatized users to the virtual space and control mechanisms. Some students moved faster than others in the space because they have access to VR gaming consoles at home, but others experienced the learning curve involved in coordinating real-life actions with people in this digital world.
According to Superintendent Sandra McGonagle, this year is a test to see if the VR lessons will increase understanding. Classes not participating in the pilot program were given the same pre-skills assessment at the beginning of the year as students in the pilot program. Both groups will then receive another assessment to assess the effectiveness of VR in mastering math concepts.
If all goes well, the district will also consider expanding the program to other grades and possibly science classes.
As staff watched students enjoy the novel experience of using VR in the classroom, McGonagle said they wanted to make sure the district invested in something that was effective and not just fun. However, she and other LASD staff working on the pilot program have high hopes for its success, given that the lessons not only provide students with real-world situations to apply math concepts, but also immerse them in a physical space where they can experience and visualize them.
“I think about when I learned math and how no one ever talked about its real-world applications,” McGonagle said.
Introducing VR lessons into classrooms is an effort to improve students’ understanding of these real-world applications.
How does it work
After a quick confidence-building exercise at the start of class, students in Asuncion’s classroom are instructed to grab their headsets and controllers and spread out to make sure they’re not encroaching on any of their peers’ workspaces. When running the program for the first time, users must calibrate the device to understand the user’s movement in space.
Since the course is self-paced, some students are still working on the tutorial, but most are ready to dive into the module, where they use systems of linear equations to determine where and when two homemade planes collide.
As students progress through the module, Asuncion has access to a central dashboard where he can track their progress—showing the pace at which they’re completing assignments and which questions they’re having more trouble with. From the virtual space, students can alert the instructor that they are stuck or need help and call Asuncion to help them.
In the last 15 minutes of the period, Asuncion and fellow teacher Dianne Quintana debrief the students to help them connect the game to the unit they’ve been working on in class. Asuncion and Quintana said the exercises serve a dual purpose — to help students understand, but also to help them understand how students are working with the material and assess whether they need to change their approach.
“This is an opportunity to reinforce that and make sure math is embedded in the experience,” Asuncion said. “And all of that information is there for us to tailor our guidance to their needs.
In general, students seemed to enjoy the opportunity to learn in VR, reflecting sentiments consistent with administrators’ goal of connecting the curriculum to its real-world applications.
“It’s definitely better than normal work,” said student Isabella Mantica, going on to describe how being able to interact with the physical world helped her better understand what they were working on in class.
This technology can be overwhelming to the senses and give some people motion sickness. Most students coped well with this period and decided to get some fresh air when it was over, but students who react badly to the experience have the option of watching a video version of the game on a laptop to complete the task.
Although the district won’t have a formal evaluation of the pilot’s success until the end of the school year, Asuncion shares district administrators’ hopes for the program and is excited about implementing new techniques for student engagement.
“I’m optimistic as we try different things to engage our students,” he said. “Students change and evolve, so I hope the curriculum evolves along with it.”