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Students 'teleport' from SD using virtual reality goggles

Maddie Avery, a second-grade student at L.B. Williams Elementary School, and her classmates try out virtual reality goggles for the first time on Wednesday as teacher Dina Vander Wilt lends a helping hand in explaining the new tech. Sara Bertsch / Forum News Service1 / 2
Teacher Dina Vander Wilt explains to students how to use virtual reality goggles on Wednesday at L.B. Williams Elementary School. Sara Bertsch / Forum News Service2 / 2

MITCHELL, S.D.—At L.B. Williams Elementary School, there's no distance too far for a field trip.

So far, students have traveled to the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and even outer space. All they need to do is strap on a pair of virtual reality goggles and away they go.

"It's kind of like a teleportation device, but you're not actually moving," said Cole Lentsch, a fifth-grader at L.B. Williams.

At the start of the school year, the elementary school in Mitchell was named the recipient of a $10,000 grant from the America's Farmers Grow Rural Education program. The grant was sponsored by the Monsanto Fund. With the money, the school purchased 30 virtual reality goggles to go on virtual field trips.

The school was chosen because of the nomination from several area farmers, who decided it was essential the elementary students be exposed to the new tech, according to Dina Vander Wilt, a teacher at L.B. Williams.

And now that the goggles have arrived and are ready to be used in the classroom, Vander Wilt and teacher Tressa Wede are taking turns in showing students and teachers of L.B. Williams how to use them.

"Virtual reality is up and coming," Vander Wilt said. "It's new and a lot of schools are starting to use it. And it's a great way for them to see places that they may never go see."

Vander Wilt said the goggles are controlled by the teacher, who takes the students on the expedition using an iPad. The virtual field trips are created by actual 360-degree images.

And for Wede's students, who recently visited different biomes, including the rainforest, it's fun to hear and see students' reaction. But it's even better that the virtual trips benefit the curriculum in the classroom.

"It just brings home the fact that we're living in this digital age and that these kids are digital natives and this is just what they know," Wede said. "When we can put this in their hands to enhance our curriculum and what we're saying, bringing it to life three dimensionally, it's the coolest thing."

And her students agree. Wede said while it really enhances the science and social studies curriculum, the virtual goggles can also allow students to explore different careers. And career expeditions aren't the only trips students can see. Wede hopes to tie in trips to universities around the country as many college campuses have 360-degree tours, which are available through the virtual reality goggles, too.

For now, the goggles will be piloted at L.B. Williams, and Vander Wilt hopes in the future more sets will be used in other schools within the Mitchell School District.

And if the students of Gertie Belle Rogers and Longfellow Elementary schools are like fifth-graders Lentsch and Max Hart, they'll love the technology.

Both agree it doesn't feel like school when they're wearing the goggles.

"You can see all around you," Hart said. "It's really cool."

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