Jordan Chinnow shares his VREP project with Scott Mulholland's seventh grade history students.
Jordan Chinnow shares his VREP project with Scott Mulholland's seventh grade history students.
"This is where the Union wants to hold off the Confederate Army until reinforcements come, and this is Cemetery Ridge, and this, Little Round Top," said Kingsland High School student Jordan Chinnow, showing Scott Mulholland's seventh graders a computerized virtual recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg last Tuesday morning. "This was day one of the battle, and we tried to show how the Union and Confederates fought there - we wanted to use actual soldiers, but when we went to make them in three dimensions, it was hard to make them move."

Chinnow went on to show the yet somewhat inflexible model of a Union soldier that he and Alek Kohn had created for their studies as part of the Virtual Reality Education Pathfinder (VREP) program, an educational initiative and partnership between government, education and industry. Students within the program are offered high school and/or college credit for their work. The program's curriculum is self-directed, giving students the freedom to decide what areas are of interest to them and what technologies to use.

Essentially, the students are charged with creating virtual reality and 3D models, simulations and projects that serve several purposes, including projects such as the Gettysburg VREP project Kohn and Chinnow presented to the seventh graders, and must meet state and national educational standards while researching and building their projects. Kingsland guidance counselor Bruce Rohne explained that this year, Chinnow and Kohn, as well as their fellow student, Alex Campbell, have been the pilot participants in Kingsland's VREP curriculum launch.

"They have two projects they have to do each semester - one for a teacher, and the other, they can pick what they want to do," said Rohne. "At the end of the semester, they have to sit before a panel - me, the principal and the teacher they did the project for, and they're graded on it."

Since the projects are made available through a secure online library to all VREP schools and students, the number of projects that teachers and students can access multiplies as participants complete them.

The VREP standards are "demanding," noted the website, and require that "students be able to provide presentations and clearly articulate what they have learned on short notice...must show a willingness and desire to be independent learners and be willing to work in an environment where self-discipline and maturity are expected." In spite of the demands, the program has shown itself to be useful in re-engaging students who do not find interest in the traditional education system, allowing them to raise their grade point averages, take "increasingly difficult courses and begin to see themselves as learners and capable students...at-risk, special education, high and low achieving students have all benefited from participation in VREP. VREP is more about transforming learning and teaching than it is about technology. VR and 3D are simply vehicles for changing the traditional teacher-student relationships."

Rohne pointed out that the students have no teacher to report to, no lesson plans to follow, and that it's just "two guys sitting in a room with nobody telling them how to do things. It adds a good dimension to our school because we don't have computer classes during the day, but we have VREP and the First Robotics team. The kids in VREP are really enjoying it. It also teaches real world job skills and terms, problem solving skills and different technology, and especially teamwork - they've found that if they work together, it goes a lot easier."

Rohne also observed that while the students' work may look simple while being presented, it actually takes the entire semester to engineer a three-dimensional Battle of Gettysburg and decide how to render the light, whether to design soldiers to do all the fighting, or whether taking an entirely different three-dimensional technological approach to sharing the events on the hills of Pennsylvania might suit the assignment best.

"People don't realize how much work it is to make a body move in three dimensions," he stated. "They have to build the skeletons and make each individual part move. We're used to seeing the end result in movies, so we don't generally think about that. But I think the more that they learn to problem-solve, the better they do at just about everything."

Chinnow and Kohn are fortunate to be pilot Kingsland VREP participants, as they're increasing their skills and prospects for career opportunities.

Rohne said, "If you look at the different careers in the field, this is pretty unlimited - they use it at Mayo in surgery - and since everything is more tech-driven, modeling, especially in three dimensions, is in demand in entertainment and medical fields. If they can build in three dimensions, anybody involved in VREP can have a wonderful career."

To prove that point to his seventh graders, Mulholland, Kingsland's history teacher, asked Chinnow, "The only limit for this is your imagination?"

Chinnow replied, "As long as you can figure out how to get around the problems, you can come up with and do anything."

For more information on the VREP curriculum, log onto www.vrep.org.