Columbia Falls Junior High eighth-grader Haylee Lawrence put on a pair of glasses during science class on Feb. 15. They aren’t ordinary glasses, however. What resemble small pegs protruding from the lightweight metal frames are actually tracking sensors being picked up by a camera on a special monitor in front of her.
An image of the human heart appears on the screen. She picks up a stylus; holding it like a pen, she aims the pointed end toward the screen. Without touching the screen, she moves the stylus in different directions, then toward herself.
“Whoa! It’s popping out at me,” Lawrence says, her head moving back slightly.
Looking through the specialized glasses, she is able to perceive depth. With a tilt or turn of her head, the perspective changes.
With the sweep of the stylus she can look at a 3-D model from different angles.
She holds down a button near the end of the stylus.
“You can feel the heartbeat,” she says.
Lawrence is using augmented reality and virtual reality technology from a company called zSpace. The zSpace Learning Lab at the junior high features 10 workstations that were purchased last year using a $40,000 grant from the Weyerhaeuser Giving Fund.
Classmate Morgan McAleavey sits next to Lawrence, wearing glasses similar to ones used to watch a 3-D movie but without the tracking sensors. Although she can’t manipulate images on the screen, she is able to see the image clearly and follow along.
Nearby, eighth grader Ethan Harmon dabbles with drawing.
“Whoa! It’s like I can touch it,” Harmon says lifting his hands to where the drawing appears to him.
Similar exclamations are echoed around the room as most students use the technology for the first time.
Columbia Falls Junior High science teacher Tom Berquist walks around the room assisting students if they need help learning to use the technology.
ZSpace software covers content in a variety of subjects with more than 1,000 3-D models where students can explore, investigate, dissect, design, build, troubleshoot, compare and analyze. For now, the junior high is primarily using the software for science.
“The next thing I’m going to ask you to do is go to Newton’s Park,” Berquist said.
A floating gray, circular platform comes onto the screens in addition to spheres that represent planets and a ball.
“I don’t use it for everything, but there’s some things like the lab they’re going to be doing on gravity — it’s indispensable because they can simulate gravity on different planets,” Berquist said. “They’re going to do an experiment where they’re going to calculate the force of gravity.”
“So they can change the mass of the ball and they’re going to find out that it doesn’t matter what the mass of the ball is, it’s going to fall at the same rate in a gravity field,” Berquist said.
What the students observe provides background for later classroom discussion.
“Before we talk about the equation students will see it in action,” Berquist said.
Eighth-grader Alyssa Williams clicks on a sphere representing Earth. A mountainous background appears behind the gray platform.
Williams said it wasn’t too difficult to pick up on how to handle the stylus to manipulate objects. While this is her first time using zSpace, she isn’t unfamiliar with virtual reality technology. Williams said she’s tried a virtual reality headset before that is used to play video games.
“I tried them out, but I think the zSpace is better because you can actually pick things up, and hold it in front of your face ... manipulate things the way you want them to be,” Williams said.
Williams thinks zSpace will help students learn.
“It helps you understand concepts better because you can actually see what’s going on...if you just read about it, you don’t grasp the idea strong enough, but when you can actually manipulate how you can see things, then it helps you understand it better.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.