Starting this fall, Portage students will have the opportunity to dissect the human body, manipulate muscles and bones and see how the heart pumps blood, all without the need for a cadaver.
The experience will come from a 3D virtual reality on one of six zSpace laptops recently purchased by the Portage Community School District. Director of Instructional Technology Amy Eppinger said she learned of the technology while working at a different district and wanted to bring it to Portage.
“It’s actually a supplement and an enrichment to the curriculum already in place that we’re hoping will inspire the students to continue on that journey — to dig deeper, to ask more questions, to really get a good grip on what it is that they’re talking about,” she said.
Students using zSpace laptops don 3D glasses, which allow them to “pull and play with things in three dimensions, including things like dissecting a whale or taking apart an atom or reconnecting pieces of an engine,” Eppinger said.
She applied for grants, which she used to buy six zSpace laptops and several three-year licenses for educational software on topics of science, human anatomy and auto mechanics made specifically for the devices. She hopes to purchase four more laptops that will be put on mobile carts for classroom use.
The Edward C. Lenz and June M. Lenz Charitable Trust gave $11,000 for the effort and the Greater Portage Youth Education Foundation contributed $5,000, according to District Administrative Assistant Suzi Hemler.
Eppinger noted a stylus used to interact with virtual objects in zSpace gives a feedback sensation for kinesthetic realism . Trackers on the laptop follow the glasses, allowing the technology to adjust the virtual and augmented reality as the student’s head moves. That means users can visually explore objects that are not really there.
“We think it’s going to be one of the best additions that we are making to our digital learning environment” because students will be in a digital working environment as adults, Eppinger said.
She said professionals in medical and automotive fields have worked with educators to provide material for zSpace that allows students to learn beyond just basic facts.
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Named after the z-axis that makes a flat xy-plane three-dimensional, the devices will give students “a very realistic learning experience,” even if they can’t take part in the real-world thing, Eppinger said. For example, if an injury prevents someone from going into the auto shop, that student still could take an engine apart virtually.
“We know that different students learn differently and we need to give them as many options as we can,” she said.
This will be the first year zSpace will be used in Portage classrooms, though some students were introduced to it in March when the company brought its zSpace tour bus to the district. Eppinger said they were able to play around with the devices. The district surveyed students afterward and found they were “very excited to get this technology in their hands,” she said.
Assistant District Administrator Peter Hibner said the laptops will be open to all Portage High School students, adding the district hopes to eventually expand the opportunities to lower grades. The grants are allowing more students to use them, he said.
“That’s pretty cool,” Hibner said. “We’re very excited about that.”
While administrators also want to expand to other subject areas in the future, they are focusing first on science, technology, engineering and math areas due to the cost of the software, Eppinger said.
Teachers will train Aug. 16 and 23 on how to use zSpace and incorporate it into their lesson plans. Eppinger noted they can download lesson plans, as well as upload and create their own curricula and activities with the technology, allowing for flexibility.
“We wouldn’t bring it in if we weren’t passionate about the opportunities that it brings for our students,” she said, “but we also understand that it’s new and it’s going to take a little time for everyone to feel comfortable enough to use it to its full potential.”