Amari, a middle school student at Enterprise Charter School in downtown Buffalo, had never seen a jellyfish. So when he put on the virtual reality goggles provided by the Graduate School of Education, turned around and saw one of the gelatinous creatures coming up behind him, he was surprised — to say the least — at how big it was.
“Do they get this big in the ocean?” he asked school Superintendent Julie Schwab.
Months later, he’s still talking about it, says Schwab, whose inner-city school recently received a three-year, $60,000 Catholic Health Community Benefit Grant that will allow UB faculty to show teachers at the charter school how to use technology to improve their students’ critical and analytical thinking.
“Some of the students are still remembering the virtual reality experience they had in November, and they’re having conversations with me about sessions that were literally five or 10 minutes each,” says Schwab. “And they did it here.”
The students, who can’t get over their first brief encounter with virtual reality, haven’t seen anything yet. They’re about to be benefactors of an ongoing program designed to show Enterprise Charter School teachers how to use technology already up and running in the Graduate School of Education.
Lynn E. Shanahan, associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction who conducts research in disciplinary literacies, is the grant’s principal investigator. She has brought in two UB colleagues who are experts in using technology to enhance learning: Randy Yerrick, professor and associate dean for inter-professional education and engagement, and Richard Lamb, associate professor of learning and instruction, and director of UB’s new multidisciplinary Neurocognition Science Laboratory.
The grant aims to provide teachers with enhanced tools to increase their students’ academic achievement. Shanahan’s goal is to increase learning opportunities for students by offering them the chance to participate in enhanced learning environments.
“One of the things that typically happens in high-needs urban schools is that the level of expectation around critical thinking and learning is not usually as high,” she says.
“Through technological tools and effective teacher professional development, the grant will allow us to give our students the instruments and experiences they need to push their thinking to higher levels.”
Both Yerrick and Lamb, who will go into the classroom to help teachers learn how to best use these devices, have impressive technology-to-classroom credentials.
Yerrick offers a wide repertoire of technology teaching and innovation, devising creative ways to enhance science learning, particularly for underserved students. His STEM education grants, research and professional development efforts have improved science learning for students from kindergarten to university graduate studies, and extended university collaborations with schools to maximize UB’s impact and relevance.
Lamb, a new arrival to UB from Washington State, has received numerous accolades for the use of technology, including the Early Career Research Award from the National Association for Research in Science Teaching.
His Neurocognition Science Laboratory is home to UB’s virtual reality activities, which give the Graduate School of Education an opportunity and resources no other university education department in the country has. The lab is one of the only places in the country that combines virtual reality and measurement of learning with neuroimaging technologies and other psycho-physiological measures to understand learning across the lifespan.
Lamb and Yerrick see the vast potential for school-university partnerships by introducing and studying state-of-the-art technology with today’s students.
“Students are not well-served when the Regents exams become the instructional goal and students are called upon to give back basic facts,” says Yerrick, who already has worked with Enterprise Charter students on experiments that include testing the school’s water quality and tracking the speed of cars whizzing by the school, bounded by the main thoroughfares of Oak and Elm streets.
“They often have not been given the opportunity to collect data and use that data to answer their own questions about science in their community,” he says.
“Part of Rich’s and my addition to what these teachers are trying to do is to teach these concepts with some richer understanding of what they are learning, which includes seeing things they have not seen before, as well as producing data from the things they see every day.”
Funding from the grant will be used to purchase virtual reality equipment for the charter school, similar to the system of goggles and software Lamb has used in his neurocognition lab in Baldy Hall and shared with the students at Enterprise Charter.
The vivid and lasting experience Amari and his classmates shared when wearing the virtual reality goggles illustrates the power of this experience to enhance teaching, Lamb says.
“The underwater experience is very vivid,” he explains. “So now if we start talking about a coral reef, for example, you can tie that back to your experience. If we start talking about fish and whales, you have a conception of what that looks like.
“In addition, the use of virtual reality provides access to thousands of different learning environments and models produced by Lifeliqe (an educational virtual-reality software environment design company) in which we can facilitate student experiences and learning opportunities,” he says. “In these environments, the students can walk with dinosaurs, manipulate Icosahedron cross-sections and examine the water cycle in fully interactive ways.”
The grant also will be used to purchase the kind of scientific probes Yerrick already has used in Enterprise Charter classrooms, eliminating the need to use UB’s equipment.
Yerrick’s work incorporates the use of live data collection through these scientific probes, which are relatively inexpensive science instruments that take the temperature of materials students see every day. Besides the speeding-cars experiments, he used the probes to compare the speed of cars to those of students’ sneezes for perspective.
The specific programs and grade levels from the charter school that will work with UB will be determined soon. Yerrick and Lamb want to build on the work they already have done at the school. Now, the school will have its own technology, as well as the hands-on help from the UB professors who can help them use it.
“That’s what we needed,” says Shanahan. “We needed the technology to enhance learning. We also needed our teachers to understand how to harness the technology because, as both Randy and Rich will tell you, the technology itself does not make the difference, but how a teacher uses technology is critical to learning. Our job in the Graduate School of Education is to show teachers how to use the technology effectively, and their job as teachers is to facilitate and guide the students’ learning.
“The interesting thing is that kids learn from their own experiences first and then go outward,” she says. “So if our curriculum is only looking at the Amazon ecosystem, then they are not going to retain that information as well because it is so far from the students’ own experiences. So Randy suggests you learn about your local ecosystem first. And then from your own backyard, you move out to more distant ecosystems.”
Shanahan’s educational specialty is literacy, so she is interested in studying students when they are in these learning spaces provided by Lamb and Yerrick. Use of 3-D immersion learning environments, or learning through use of technological tools, brings up several questions, she says: Can we use the virtual spaces to increase student vocabulary? Can we increase students’ abilities to write critical responses? How does learning differ for these students? What is the engagement level there? What are the disciplinary literacy-specific skills related to science and critical thinking with these different tools?
The grant program dovetails with the strong commitment of GSE faculty to bring their research and expertise into the community where it’s most needed. Often, Shanahan says, the greatest need is in the inner city.
“We all do a lot of good work in the Graduate School of Education, but how are we touching kids’ lives?” she asks. “What are we doing on a daily basis? And how can we better use all this expertise we have at the university? How does the varied expertise with literacy, science and math come together?”