Middle schoolers get a virtual reality STEAM lesson, dissect dinosaurs, human brains, starfish

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - A Clear Creek seventh grader, wearing 3D glasses, dissects a dinosaur during a mobile classroom visit courtesy of zSpace, a high-tech firm. A gaggle of Clear Creek Middle School seventh grade students wearing 3D glasses peer at computer screens displaying a realistic model of a beating human heart. In 3D, the heart seems like it is actually pulsing in front of you. The students use a stylus to thread a virtual camera through the chambers of the heart to see the inside of the organ as it throbs.

Welcome to the brave new world of teaching STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math).

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - The zSpace mobile classroom is touring the country, giving students a virtual reality way to learn STEAM subjects. The students are aboard a big blue trailer, a mobile classroom touring the country, operated by the Sunnyvale, Calif., technology company zSpace.

The next task for the students is to dissect something. They can choose a starfish, human brain, dinosaur, Beluga whale, cactus or other specimens. There's no stinky formaldehyde or rubbery organs, however. The cutting is all virtual.

One student selects a starfish and flips it over to examine the underside. She flips it back and uses the stylus to "slice" off the echinoderm's top and she begins exploring its insides.

'That's so cool," she says, studying the starfish's inner workings.

About 250 students got a chance to use the 3D technology, Clear Creek Principal David Atherton said.

zSpace specializes in virtual reality and augmented reality, which lets people experience simulated objects in virtual environments with the feeling that they are real.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - 'That's so cool,' this student said as she began cutting apart a virtual starfish to study its inner workings. Part of zSpace's business is creating hardware, software and other technology-based resources for schools and education. There is no charge to the school for the mobile, high-tech classroom visit.

"The beauty of this technology is that it allows students to explore systems and experiences they would not normally be able to access," he said. "Our students don't have access to, nor would we necessarily want them to, a rattlesnake to safely dissect. zSpace allows students to deconstruct engines, planets, animals, chemical compounds, etc."

Another exercise lets students compare the structure of planets, comparing Earth to Jupiter as they peel back the layers.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - A zSpace educator (center, in grey fleece) guides the Clear Creek students as they use virtual reality to study science. It's also a super-fun way to learn science.

Atherton acknowledges the van "has the wow factor."

He said one student told him "I want to live here." Another said, "I'm glad I decided to come to school today."

One student even declared it "the best day of school ever!"

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