STEM and Virtual Reality at School

September 25, 2017

 

NAPS has, over the years, encouraged students at all levels in our school system to think about science and math as interesting areas to build a life around. Our nation is lagging in terms of student interest in what is referred to as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Even in our local schools, few students are, for some reason, inspired to get involved with science and math, the educational forerunners to engineering and technology. 

 

Since an understanding of science provides the bedrock for all environmental issues, NAPS has worked to generate interest through involvement with technology in the schools. We have introduced a LEGO STEM program at the elementary school to stimulate interest in 3D thinking – encouraging students to construct villages with buildings and roads. We have extended the LEGO program into the middle school, along with participation in the US Navy SeaPerch underwater robot project. In SeaPerch our students have performed with distinction in national competition. With senior students, NAPS has provided a quadcopter drone that the ROTC and Capstone Math students flew. 

Senior students were also assisted as they constructed a 120-watt solar array and later converted it to a cell phone charging station. Rudimentary programming has also been introduced using mini-programmable robots. Exposure to contemporary technologies does stimulate student interest in science and math. 

 

This year NAPS, working with Capstone Math instructor Anita McEntire, introduced a new topic area to the Capstone Math students – Virtual Reality. This year’s project for the Capstone Math students was to couple VR/AR technology with a local application. As many of you know, there is a funded and ongoing “Callao Revitalization” project underway under the auspices of our County Economic Development Commission. Our somewhat ambitious project goal was to generate Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) before-and-after versions of the Callao village. NAPS is working to provide students with both an understanding of the science and math involved and actual immersion in Virtual Reality 3-D digital environments. Of course the “real” goal was to infect students with interest in a rapidly growing new technology area. 

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple has said that Virtual Reality, and its close relative, Augmented Reality, are as big an idea as the smartphone. Expect the next iPhone to incorporate some version of VR and AR. Even during VR/AR early development, free sample VR visual material is already available on the web at sources like YouTube and Google Maps. For those with strong interest, a good description of VR/AR technology can be viewed on line at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4Zt3JZejbg.

 

Callao village renovation plans have now been submitted to the state with hopes of project funding. The Capstone Math students were briefed on the project by Economic Development Director, Theresa Lambert, and have visited the existing VR version available on Google Map Street View. Their task was to use the “augmentations” suggested by project contractor Hill Studio. These are currently available in 2D front-view drawings of the various Callao buildings. Merging these 2D drawings into 3D augmentations of the existing Google street views is a major effort. It would involve augmentation of a group assembly amphitheater area, new front renovations of stores, murals on appropriate walls, new and attractive signage, new faux brick crosswalks, arches and road reconstruction, all merged with pleasing landscaping. This is a wonderful opportunity for demonstration of a tangible and important use of the technology above and beyond entertainment. 

 

With the Callao reality base provided by Google and the augmentation suggestions provided by contract with Hill Studio, the task at hand was to provide 3D reality base augmentation. To this end, students downloaded and practiced using the 3D drawing tool “SketchUp Make.” Google has linked SketchUp with Google Map Street View in such a way that augmentation of buildings can be made to convert building views to the “revitalized” versions. However, the practical limits of time and software maturity did not allow full completion of this very ambitious project. Still, the seeds of understanding were planted and contemporary tools were established with students. All student work was done on a non-interference basis with the Callao Project. 

 

SketchUp Make is a free version for non-commercial use, and is great for getting familiar with most features of the software. The commercial version “SketchUp Pro” is over $500, but has a “warehouse” full of already drawn goodies. Download and try the free version – you’ll love it. 

 

To provide the “immersion” hands-on experience for students, NAPS purchased ten Virtual Reality headsets. These headsets were used by the students, with their smartphones, to view various VR sample videos on the web. Some students even reported a sense of nausea while viewing high dynamic VR scenes like riding on a roller coaster. Riding in a jet fighter, or being in a virtual world surrounded by great white sharks, can also provide a thrill. You can join them in your own virtual world through installation of your smartphone in a fairly inexpensive headset ($10 - $30). 

Feedback from course participants has indicated that the seeds of VR/AR were successfully planted. Even though full augmentation of the Callao village was not achieved, student participation regarding AR/VR visual concepts did tweak their interest in the application of this new technology.

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