By Wendy McMahon for EdSurge, May 15, 2018
At 17 years old, Christine Johns sat in a university classroom surrounded by men and women who were devastated as Pittsburgh’s steel industry collapsed around them. Displaced steelworkers and stay-at-home mothers found themselves desperate for an education—and the work it would help secure.
Johns vividly remembers one woman turning to her and saying, “Young lady, make sure you get your college education and degree. Don’t be like me. Here I am at 40 years old, sitting in a classroom, trying to figure out what I need to do so my family can survive. Take control of your future and your destiny.”
That message catapulted Johns onto a career path that took her from teacher to administrator and eventually to superintendent of Utica Community Schools, a suburban Detroit community in the heart of the automotive industry. In each role, she has focused on helping students become college and career ready so they can avoid the struggles of her displaced steelworker classmates years before.
As the superintendent for Michigan’s second largest school district—with approximately 27,000 students—Johns is intent on finding innovative ways to give students the skills and resources they need to thrive at each stage of their education and to participate fully in a global economy.
Johns spoke with EdSurge about using augmented and virtual reality to help students become college and career ready, measuring the impact of new technologies, and the importance of professional development.
EdSurge: How does technology fit into your goal of helping all students become college and career ready?
Christine Johns: Our economy has changed significantly. To have access to high paying careers in the future requires some type of post-secondary education. So, how do we give our students the skills and the resources they need so that they can have what all parents desire for their children . . . a high quality of life? Education, I believe, is that ticket.
We need to find ways to give our children access to current and future technologies that will allow them to fully participate in our global economy.
Why specifically did you choose to adopt AR/VR technology?
Utica Community Schools is situated is in the heart of the automotive, defense and healthcare industries, and our community has a heavy manufacturing base. Many of the businesses are already using virtual reality—whether it’s doctors performing surgery, designers building cars or the defense industry testing products in virtual environments.
Why would we not give our children those same experiences in our classrooms? Virtual reality has evolved over the last several years, particularly in the area of education and what’s available to students. Kids love it. It’s just a natural fit.
That’s why for the past two years we’ve been running a pilot project in four of our elementary schools where we use zSpace’s AR/VR technology to teach science.
What skills are students gaining from using AR/VR?
We want our students to be innovative problem solvers. We want them to be able to work with others and be able to test variables. When we looked at zSpace and the virtual reality curriculum apps it has, there were opportunities for students to work collaboratively and with their teachers, but also opportunities for students to investigate subject matter more deeply if they wanted.
For example, if I think of a student that has an interest in understanding how the heart works, we are not just reading out of a book and discussing how the heart functions. Instead, there’s active engagement and imagining. Students actually take the stylus and navigate through the valves of the heart. They can take the heart apart and turn it around to help them understand how it works. This is a deeper level of engagement and a deeper level of learning that allows for students to develop understanding in a 3-D way, not in a two-dimensional way.
What can teachers and students do with this technology that they couldn’t do without it?
Here’s an example. There’s a zSpace module called Franklin’s Lab. The students actually build a whole circuit board and then program it to run certain motors, turn lights on, etc. In order to do that, they have to test the conductivity of various materials—plastic, metal, glass. They use the investigative process, collect and retain data, and do analysis.
They could do those things previously, but it meant the teacher had to collect materials, prepare them for students, and then get students organized in groups. By the time you had everything set up—a typical class period is 60 to 90 minutes—the kids were just getting into it before it was time to move on to the next activity.
Instead, now you can start the activity and if class time runs out, you can come back the next day and pick up where you left off. It helps develop deeper learning. You don’t lose what you already set up; you don’t have to get it all ready again for the next class. The system also saves the students’ work.
How are you measuring the success of your pilot program?
If we look at the four schools and how they’re performing on the NWEA assessment in science, we see that these schools are very easily on pace with or outpacing the national average in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. That’s important because, it shows us that when students are problem-solving and doing these investigations through zSpace, they are also learning content, and the principles of science and science vocabulary.
Students are also more engaged. When students are in the labs working with the virtual reality content, time-on-task is extraordinarily high.
We’re also measuring on the other side—our teachers. Are the materials easy to use? Are they able to make them work with their kids as well? We’re evaluating all of that now. Right now we know they are excited and they think the materials are great.
What advice do you have for school and district leaders interested in using AR/VR in their schools?
In the implementation, professional development is key. The teachers are excited about virtual reality, but it’s also a different way to present information; the teaching component is different than what they’re doing today. It’s important to invest in that professional development for teachers as we transition to a different way of delivering content to students.
zSpace has provided the professional development for us. They have an expert teacher, with a science background, who works directly with our teachers and it’s been very helpful.
|zSpace Studio||K-12||A rich model exploration and presentation tool that allows students to compare, dissect, analyze, measure, and annotate thousands of 3D models.|
|Newton’s Park||K-12||Allows students to run or create their own experiments to deepen their knowledge of Newtonian Mechanics.|
|Franklin’s Lab||K-12||Guides students through electricity concepts and troubleshooting faulty circuits.|
|Curie’s Elements||K-12||Allows students to explore a periodic table with Bohr and atomic models for each element.|
|Euclid’s Shapes||K-12||Offers activities with math manipulatives and provides teachers with a guide to math learning.|
|Leopoly||K-12||Introduces students to the world of 3D creation by helping them create, customize, and prepare digital objects for 3D printing.|
|Geogebra||K-12||Allows students to better engage in math concepts related to three-dimensional topics.|
|VIVED Science||K-12||A comprehensive package of detailed interactive dissection experiences.|
|Tinkercad||K-12||An online 3D design and printing site that will allow you to import models directly to zSpace Studio.|
|Human Anatomy Atlas||Health Science||An award-winning human anatomy general reference.|
|VIVED Anatomy||Health Science||A high quality interactive software for learning anatomy in 3D.|
|VIVED Volume||Health Science||A tool for viewing and manipulating medical imaging scans (DICOM) on zSpace.|
|Virtual ECG||Health Science||Allows students to practice ECG electrode placement.|
|VR Automotive Mechanic||Career & Technical||Lets students practice assembly and disassembly within a virtual mechanic shop.|
|VR Automotive Expert||Career & Technical||A 3D interactive study guide for automotive training.|
|WaveNG||Career & Technical||Provides students with hands-on training in welding gestures, MAG and MMA.|