Software engineers at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Md., in collaboration with JHU's Center for Technology in Education, have developed a prototype Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to provide Baltimore County students with a gaming-like experience to augment existing math and science curriculums.
The first of its kind in the nation, the VLE is located at Chesapeake High School in Essex, Md. It is deployed in a new facility modeled after a state-of-the-art, 3-D visualization facility at APL, used for Department of Defense and NASA projects, called ARENA (Augmented Reality Environment at APL). Like the ARENA lab, the Virtual Learning facility at Chesapeake High School includes 10 high-definition 72-inch TV monitors, arranged in two, five-screen semi-circles. Students will interface with what they see on screen using a custom-designed digital switch and touch-panel controller. Additionally, an adjoining classroom housing 30 workstations, each outfitted with three monitors, will run the same scenarios as the larger virtual facility so lessons can be applied on an individual or team basis.
The first 3-D virtual environment the students will experience is a geographically accurate terrain model of the area surrounding Mount St. Helens in Washington. They'll traverse the area in a vehicle that can morph from an aircraft to a car or boat, encountering learning challenges involving virtual characters, animals or other 3-D objects specific to curriculum being addressed. The APL-developed software enables teachers to customize the learning modules by adding resources such as documents, Web sites, photos and videos.
"We're providing a very compelling environment to excite students about math and science," says Jim Miller, APL's senior software engineer for the project. "It's a different way for them to learn, and for teachers to present, math and science concepts.
"This is a unique opportunity to work with other Johns Hopkins personnel and transition technology designed for the government to meet a critical educational need in our community, which reflects a larger educational crisis in our country," says Tim Frey, assistant supervisor of the APL group developing the Virtual Learning Environment prototype. "Studies have shown that U.S. students are lagging behind in math and science and we hope this pilot program will capture and maintain students' interests in these subjects and help expose them to careers in these fields, as well."
Although the tool will initially augment math and science curriculums, throughout the next year the school plans to use the Virtual Learning Environment for additional content areas, such as social studies and English courses. During the next year, APL will develop other virtual environments, such as the lunar South Pole. Future software developments will enable teams of students to simultaneously use the system, as well as enable teachers to embed quizzes within the learning modules.
The Virtual Learning Environment project grew out of a recently completed U.S. Department of Education "Star Schools" grant, initially awarded to Maryland Public Television, focused on the potential of gaming and simulation technologies to provide contextual, active and effective learning experiences. For this project, APL is responsible for software development to support deployment to Chesapeake High School's VLE. JHU's Center for Technology in Education is helping Chesapeake teachers develop curriculum and scenarios for the prototype, and are training teachers to use the system.
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