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What it’s like to step into virtual reality at Whitlow Elementary School
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Braden Walters, a fourth-grader at Whitlow Elementary School, explores space using an HTC VIVE Virtual Reality System with Vickie Sexton, the school's instructional technology specialist, on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. - photo by Bradley Wiseman

What a decade ago would have been viewed as a farfetched cliché of ’80s, ’90s science fiction is now being used by elementary and high school students in Forsyth County for what educators are hailing as a resounding success.

Over the last semester, students at Whitlow Elementary School in Cumming have had access to a state-of-the-art HTC VIVE Virtual Reality (VR) System, which has allowed them to travel back in time, to explore our galaxy and see intricate processes of their own bodies and the planet we live on with their own eyes.

With the school just months into its VR program, educators state that their student’s attentiveness and excitement about learning increase with each session.

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Whitlow Elementary School started incorporating an HTC VIVE Virtual Reality System into some of its curricula this year. Students have used it to explore space, ancient civilizations and World War II. - photo by Bradley Wiseman

According to Lynne Castleberry, principal of Whitlow, when they saw virtual reality systems in action at an event held by the school system last year, they knew that they needed it for their students.

"I think the greatest thing is the wow factor,” Castleberry said. “The kids are really, really engaged."

With the help of PTA and local funds, Castleberry said that they were able to put together a package of the technology and work out how to incorporate it into their lesson plans for older students at the school.

Castleberry said that because students are so used to using the “latest and greatest technology” in their daily lives, a technology like virtual reality allows educators to connect with them on a deeper level and drive home lessons.

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Whitlow Elementary School fourth-grader Asa Graser reacts after using the school's new virtual reality program to explore space on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. - photo by Bradley Wiseman

“We went to our PTA, I said, ‘This is really what we want to have, because not only is it exciting stuff and new technology … but because kids don't learn the way that they used to,’” she said. “That book and worksheet and piece of paper, it doesn't work anymore.”

In addition to the deeper connection to the school’s technology-native student population, Castleberry said that the nearly-unlimited educational possibilities and opportunities of the system are more than worth the technology’s increasingly affordable price tag.

From the comfort of Whitlow’s media center, students are able to explore the body, the solar system – anywhere – with the ability to manipulate objects, research things and see for themselves, rather than read out of a book with text and photos. 

"You were able to look at the heart and inside the heart; you would never understand that the way that you understand it doing the virtual reality program," Castleberry said. "It's an insider’s view, looking at things in real time, the way it really happens, the way the blood really flows through your heart.”

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Whitlow Elementary School fourth-graders Anvil Patel, left, and Asa Graser use iPads to review their experience with the school's new HTC VIVE Virtual Reality System on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018. - photo by Bradley Wiseman

And to hear the Whitlow students talk about it, the VR experience for them is no joke.

On Monday, the busy school media center was packed with students waiting their turn to try on the headset, or sitting with their classmates huddled around iPads looking at the things that they experienced during their turn.

As students removed their headset, passing on the controls to the next student, each had a wide grin plastered to their face, excitedly exclaiming, “Wow,” or, “That’s amazing,” to Whitlow Instructional Technology Specialist Vickie Sexton.

"I thought it was an amazing experience," said fourth-grader Asa Graser. "When I looked up, it literally looked like I was looking up at the night sky.”

Graser and his classmates spent their morning using a VR space program to fly through the stars and planets, learning facts and information about anything that interested them with a wave of the hand.

After excitedly reenacting all of the things he did during his time, Graser said he was amazed to be able to use such a new technology in school.

"Hundreds of years ago, we didn't have this technology, we didn't have any,” he said. “Now technology has renovated so much that we actually get to go through space and different universes and it's amazing."

When I looked up, it literally looked like I was looking up at the night sky.
Asa Graser, Whitlow Elementary School fourth-grader

Braden Walters, another fourth-grader, said his favorite was the historical programs that they have been able to do with the system, diving into U.S. history and interactive programs about ancient civilizations.

"We got to go inside the pyramids and see the tomb; that was cool," Walters said. "It's exciting, it's fun, and I like it."

Sexton said Whitlow has used VR for history, science and P.E. classes. They’ve covered topics like World War II, space, ancient civilizations, and the students can use VR to get exercise on days with poor weather.

Even though there are a limited number of educational programs available currently, Sexton said that they are hearing that more and more are being developed every day. 

But even with their limited programs, for Sexton, the enthusiasm for VR displayed by her students is a big testament to how well it is working for them.

“We just love our kids to get that excited, when they are that engaged and they come out, take the headset off and are like, 'Awesome!’” Sexton said. “For a teacher, an educator, you can't get a better feeling than that, because you know it's going to stick and you know they are going to remember it for a long, long time."

Sexton said that while virtual reality certainly can’t replace the classroom, it is a wonderful new tool for them to use in educating.

"It just enhances it,” she said. “It gives that little wow factor, and you need that."