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Sandra Spall looks forward to the day her Life Skills students at Columbus East High School can gain experience grocery shopping, riding the bus, paying rent and earning a living — without leaving the classroom.
That day could be as little as a year away, as students in the C4 Columbus Area Career Connections Computer Technology pathway prepare to launch a virtual reality program that eventually can be modified for use by all schools in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.
“It will help them grow by leaps and bounds,” Spall predicted.
Mike Riley, who teaches the C4 pathway at Columbus North High School, said his students between last school year and this school year built two servers from the ground up with hardware and software before installing a program that they created themselves.
Expected to launch any day as an element of the C4 Computer Tech division, the computerized educational tool, called OpenSim, allows users to create digital worlds that are populated by digital representations of themselves.
It will consist of two parts:
The OpenSim C4 TechGrid Apprentice Program is designed to familiarize BCSC teachers and students about how to interact with a virtual world.
Students who receive that training will be able to create content for other simulators at other district schools.
The apprentice program allows students to progress through levels in a kind of video game that teaches them valuable programming skills. When the students master a handful of skills under each category, they advance.
Then, it’s time to pass it on. That’s when classes at every school level can benefit from getting a simulator of their own, programmed to specifications related to the subject matter.
An Indiana history class, for example, could explore a virtual world that dates back to pioneer times. Young students with their avatars could explore it and manipulate it by building log cabins, a grain mill or a railroad, Riley said.
C4 students who helped develop OpenSim are excited to see the program rolled out for the first time via the apprentice program.
Connor Boyle, a junior from Columbus North High School, said there were times during development of the program that the programmers lost sleep trying to solve problems.
“Sometimes we’d try for days to get something to work,” he said. “Then at night we’d think of something, and it would work.”
Spencer Stephens, a sophomore from Columbus North, said he has learned more working on the program than he had learned in the classroom over a much longer period of time.
“Eventually, we figured everything out,” Stephens said. “It’s very rewarding now that we’re in the position we’re in.”
Spall, who teaches life skills to juniors and seniors with cognitive disabilities at East, said she envisions an innovative way to teach her students about holding jobs, paying bills and generally learning to function in the world.
She said her students would continue to volunteer at help agencies like the Love Chapel food pantry (checking food expiration dates) and Tech Reconnect (looking over monitors and computers for defects) as class requirements. But she said “getting out there” on the computer might allow more of that to happen in the classroom.
Riley said students in general would learn subject matter more deeply because of the first-hand simulation. That’s why he is sure it will catch on with other teachers as they grow more comfortable with the technology.
“Just about anything you can imagine in the real world you can re-create in a virtual world in some form,” Riley said. “At the same time, we’re teaching basic programming skills in these different classrooms that will help them.”
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