Augmented reality brings dinos and more to elementary classes

Woodstock students recently had their chance to get up close and personal with a dinosaur.

Students in Pre-K through fifth grade immersed themselves in more than just dinosaurs — there were planets, hurricanes and ocean creatures, too.

The Google Expeditions program selected several Woodstock School District 200 schools to participate in a pilot for its Augmented Reality (AR) technology, tailored to educational topics. Students from Olson, Dean Street, Westwood and Mary Endres elementary schools and Verda Dierzen Early Learning Center had an opportunity to experience the program.

A dinosaur appears on a smartphone screen during an augmented reality session at Westwood. | Independent Photo by Whitney Rupp

Students at Westwood needed little help from adults to get started. The first-graders from Wendy Wicker’s dual-language classroom quickly adapted to the technology, using smartphones attached to arms the kids recognized as being like selfie sticks. The students took to exploring their virtual surroundings with excitement and awe, eagerly gathering around a stegosaurus, inspecting its scales and marveling at how real it appeared.

AR is similar to virtual reality, using real-world surroundings and adding computer-generated imagery and other sensory experiences. District 200 students watched as phones displayed a camera view of their environments — in this case, their classrooms — but with the added thrill of virtual 3-D elements added throughout the space in front of them. Students could be as close as they wanted, even laying beneath a stingray to view it from below.

“I can never show them the dinosaurs. It’s nothing you can show them in a book,” Wicker said.

Tracy Jacobson, instructional enrichment coach for District 200, coordinated the visits with school principals. Jacobson said teachers make connections with topics being covered in class.

“If you’re studying landforms, they’re actually able to see a volcano erupting. Talk about engagement. This is the next step. It’s so teacher-friendly, too,” Jacobson said.

Emmett Loser, a first-grader in Wicker’s class, was eager to do it again.

“I saw what it looks like in a velociraptor’s mouth. You get to see creatures that you don’t normally discover,” Emmett said, who added a book couldn’t compare to the AR experience. “There’s no pages. It is real life. But you don’t get to see it without the technology.”

The smartphones used in the district’s existing virtual reality program and in the demo of the AR program were partially funded by a grant from the District 200 Education Foundation.

Jacobson described the experience as captivating and engaging. Students were quick to agree.

“That was the awesomest thing ever,” first-grader Ethan Streep said.

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