CEDAR FALLS — The teeth of a John Deere combine poke out into a dark theater.
Students raise their arms and try to touch the behemoth as it floats what seems like inches from their faces. But their efforts are futile. Their hands can’t grasp the 3-D image on the screen in front of them. But their imaginations can.
Nearly 50 Cedar Falls elementary and junior high students recently traveled to Iowa State University in Ames to learn more about virtual reality and how it can help them bring their own ideas to life.
The trip was coordinated by Cedar Falls schools Superintendent Mike Wells to get students excited about a new after-school virtual reality program in the Cedar Valley.
Virtual Reality Educational Pathways, or VREP, was started in 2006 by East Marshall High School Principal Rex Kozak. Since then, Kozak — with the help of corporate sponsors — has expanded the K-12 program to schools across the country.
Kozak and two student trainers recently visited Cedar Falls to teach the same students who visited Ames how to use Blender, free 3-D modeling software.
“This puts the learning on the student. Instead of depending on what the teacher knows and can do, now it is just totally with the student and what they can do,” Kozak said. “Their only limitation is their own mind.”
While Cedar Falls will offer the program after school, most districts have built VREP into their curriculum.
Students produce eight projects a year — two each quarter — including one educational project for a teacher “customer” and one project based on the student’s interests.
Kozak has partnered with Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids to develop an inexpensive portable 3D VR system for schools. Other Iowa businesses donated additional equipment. This allows schools to adopt the program at little cost.
Cedar Falls already has two of the portable VR units thanks to a grant from the R.J. McElroy Trust. He is also seeking grants to pay for any additional technology needed.
“If it is fun and exciting and they have good equipment to work on then it is great, but if their computers are too slow or they don’t have the right graphics cards, that is going to be a hang-up,” Wells said.
Shane Wignall is a sophomore at East Marshall High School in Le Grand. He wasn’t sure what to expect when he joined his school’s VREP program.
“At first I was completely lost and had no idea what to do, mostly because the other people in my period of VR weren’t very experienced either,” Wignall said. “I had to get on YouTube and different websites and stuff and research it.”
Independent learning and creative thinking are the hallmarks of the VREP program.
“This is not about teachers. I teach them nothing. They teach me,” Kozak told the Cedar Falls students. “… You are going to get frustrated. Accept it. Get over it. You are going to fail. Accept it. Get over it. Go back, redo, figure it out, ask each other. Don’t ask me. Learn your research tools and learn the way to find the answers, and you will have a great time.”
Hailey Block was a little disappointed that all she learned at her first session was how to make a gingerbread man, but she is excited to learn on her own. A group of seven North Cedar students has already started planning their two projects. They are excited for the next training session in late October.
Block hopes the trainers can teach them more about creating scenery and video games.
“Sometime we get video games that we don’t like, but we have a chance in this program to make anything we want,” Block said.
Long time coming
It has been several years since Cary Darrah, Cedar Valley TechWorks’ general manager and vice president, secured a McElroy Trust grant to purchase four virtual reality projection systems — each includes a 3-D television, computer and five sets of 3-D goggles — for Waterloo and Cedar Falls schools.
Darrah had seen Kozak’s program at East Marshall in action. She was excited to help educators get a local program started. She even brought in trainers to help the students and teachers. But the program never took off. The units have sat mostly unused.
“I’m really pleased that Superintendent Wells is excited about this. I think the excitement needs to come from the administrators and teachers, even if they don’t know anything about it,” she said. “The excitement can come from them so they can lead the kids to these options.”
Wells is also working with Mary Meier, director of career/tech and high school education in Waterloo schools, to include Waterloo students in the training opportunities. She hopes to get a VREP program started in the middle schools so students can cooperate and compete on projects.
“What I am excited about this time is the partnership we are going to have with C.F. The teachers can keep each other going, and the kids can keep each other going, and that will be great,” Meier said .
Wells is also looking for a location, likely a business, where the district can install a donated four-wall virtual reality cave. The equipment requires a 20-foot ceiling.
Darrah said there will be room in TechWorks — they received the donation from John Deere — when it opens. Until then Wells is welcome to find another home. The only stipulation is that the space must be open to all Cedar Falls and Waterloo students involved in a virtual reality program.
Wells hopes to find a location by next spring. He will then work with John Deere and Mark Stewart of Prime Logic Partners to install the cave.
“The neat thing about this is they will finally apply the basic concepts they are learning in school. I’m sure you’ve sat through a math class thinking, ‘How am I ever going to apply this in life?’ It took me until about my senior year to figure that out,” Stewart said. “The virtual reality takes the math concepts you learn, the art concepts, and starts to combine those into something you can experience and see. … Any application to technology that helps us in the state of Iowa is a bonus. We are not known as a huge technology state. As we introduce technology to the younger generation it just advances our whole state’s program.”
Wells said he is focusing on the elementary and middle schools because high school students already have so much on their plates.
“It is hard for them to find time to do this. If there is interest, then our younger kids can train the older kids,” he said. “If they start young, hopefully this will build itself through the grades. As our kids come up through the grades, if there is enough interest, it might be something that could change our curriculum and we could provide time during the school day.”
There is no shortage of enthusiasm at North Cedar Elementary. Ben Olsen, a sixth-grade teacher, said the recent double dose of technology got his students excited about the program.
“On the bus afterward they were talking 100 mph about the things that they could do with this,” he said. “(Monday) first thing, all the kids — even the ones I don’t have in class — were coming up and talking to me about what they learned Saturday.”
And he’s excited, too.
“To be honest, I don’t not know a lot about technology, so this is a little bit foreign to me,” Olsen said. “But, there is also that part of me that wants to be learning with them and encouraging them along the way. This is important for them. This is what real science is. What real engineers and scientists do. This teaches them that life skill and shows them a whole new reality for future careers.”
Image: Holmes Junior High students, from right to left, Kenneth Lind, 12, Kyle Lovell, 12, and Sophie Blanchard, 12, wear their 3-D glasses during a presentation of the The Virtual Reality Experience in the Alliant Energy/Lee Liu Auditorium in Howe Hall at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. (DAWN J. SAGERT / Courier Staff Photographer)