zSpace brings virtual reality to the classroom

Students and teachers “lift” digital objects from the screen and manipulate them in three dimensions
By: | May 24, 2017

Imagine being able to reach out, touch and manipulate an object you’ve designed ‚Äì before the object exists physically in the real world. That’s the premise and promise of virtual reality, and it’s something a company called zSpace offers classrooms around the country.

With zSpace, students and teachers can “lift” digital objects—such as a human skeleton—from the screen and manipulate them in three dimensions, but without any messy, real-world consequences.

It’s the kind of thing video game developers and techies have envisioned for years, but with one important difference: zSpace was designed, from the start, to be an educational tool.

“That vision was there from the very beginning” says Elizabeth Lytle, director of education and product experience for zSpace.

In fact, zSpace worked with educators in the Los Altos School District—the same California district Sal Khan worked with while developing the Khan Academy—as they were developing and refining hardware and software. “We’ve also had teachers involved in creating learning activities within zSpace since the beginning” Lytle says.

Natalie Mondesir, a fourth-grade teacher in Liberty County School District in Georgia, traditionally has her students demonstrate their understanding of geometry and forces in motion by designing roller coasters on paper.

With zSpace and a program called Newton’s Park, her students can create and test their roller coasters in a virtual environment that also allows them to change the mass of objects and even the pull of gravity.

Now she has her students test their roller coasters in zSpace before building small, real-world replicas—just as many automotive and mechanical designers do today.

Timothy Selgrat, a seventh- and eighth-grade STEAM facilitator at Carleton Washburne School in Winnetka Public School District 36 in Illinois, says some previously disengaged students have come alive when working with zSpace.

He attributes this partially to the “wow” factor of the technology and also to the experiential aspect of zSpace. “It’s virtual, but still hands-on” he says.

Jennifer Fink is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.

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