Virtual reality's new role: teaching life skills

Virtual-reality technology has been used for everything from entertainment to military training. Now, at an elementary school in Orange County, Fla., it's boosting the academic skills of hearing-impaired students.

Patti Schofield, a resource teacher in the Total Communication Department of Lake Sybelia Elementary School, knows well the frustrations these children sometimes experience in the classroom.

"A deaf child needs to be visually on task with the teacher.... The moment the child looks away, you've lost them," she says.

Several years ago it occurred to Ms. Schofield that virtual reality might provide a solution, and she set in motion a collaboration among educators, defense contractors, and the government. Veridian, a company in Orlando, converted the virtual-reality simulation systems it had developed for the Army and Navy into a classroom aid. The project was funded by a $915,000 Department of Education grant administered by the University of Central Florida.

Since November 2000, Lake Sybelia has had a lab where students can practice life skills as well as math and reading. The computers have joysticks and high-resolution monitors (in lieu of the expensive visors that are typically used in VR applications). Students navigate through a town complete with a working and shopping area, a baseball field, a school, and a farm. Townspeople ask them questions related to whatever scenario they're working through, whether it's a stranger approaching, a fire drill, or placing a fast-food order.

The system also prepares students for tests. Florida's standards for third-grade math and language were the framework for the academic pilot program, says Bob Edge, Veridian's manager for the Virtual Reality Education for Assisted Learning (VREAL) project.

Visiting the virtual farm during a math exercise, "a student can go into the barn, look at the graph on the wall, look at the baskets of eggs, and visualize the problem," Mr. Edge says.

If the student needs a nudge in the right direction, help boxes and an American Sign Language interpreter are available on screen.

While only one student can navigate a scenario at a time, the other pupils in the class watch the action projected onto a large screen. "The students become very vocal; they jump up and point," Schofield says.

The results so far are promising. In pre- and post-program tests administered by the University of Central Florida to 60 K-5 deaf and hearing-impaired students, math scores increased 41 percent and language 30 percent.

Congress this year allotted $800,000 to offer VREAL to four schools for the deaf.

Margaret Foskett, the grandmother of a fifth-grader who has used the VREAL system at Lake Sybelia, is thrilled that more children will have access to the technology. Had it been available to her deaf son, she says, "he would have avoided many unnecessary situations."

Her granddaughter has been more attentive and confident, Ms. Foskett says. Going to the store, "she never wanted to hold my hand ... in the parking lot.... Now, she takes my hand."

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