When Lisa Kist returns to her middle school this month, she will be introducing high-tech 3D and virtual reality software under a program supported by Raytheon Missile Systems that is designed to revolutionize ways students are engaged in the classroom, especially around the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Kist, a student in the University of Arizona Math & Science Teacher Education/Retention Industry Partnerships, or MASTER-IP, is one of the first teachers in Arizona to be involved in the program, Virtual Reality Education Pathfinders, or VREP.
VREP is an educational initiative founded in Iowa that connects businesses, educational institutions, community members and the government in an effort to engage students with self-directed technology in a broad range of disciplines, but with an emphasis on the STEM fields.
The initiative also connects with state and national standards while providing an environment in which students can engage around topics of most interest to them. Also, VREP partners support help students in making improvements in their academic, social and other personal lives.
"When we focus on how industry works and how collaborative everyone is, that is really important," said Kist, who teaches science at Gridley Middle School and is a member of the UA's 2012 MASTER-IP cohort.
"Regarding STEM (education) in the classroom, some of us are encouraged to do it but, a lot of times, we do not have the resources to do it," Kist said. "But when you look at the opportunities for students and for student engagement in STEM in the classroom, this is a groundbreaking program."
During events held July 17 and 18, Raytheon Missile Systems introduced educators, business officials, students and their families to VREP and its partners schools in the Vail and Tucson Unified School districts. Beginning this month, a group of Tucson and Vail teachers will begin employing virtual reality technology in their classrooms.
"It's a great day for Raytheon, for our schools and for our community," said Bill Patterson, chief architect and growth manager for the Immersive Design Center at Raytheon. "It's going to be exciting to watch this new development grow in our community and you will amazed at what it is going to do for our students, getting them thinking about their futures, their education and careers."
Patterson worked for three years to bring VREP to Arizona and is working to build stronger relationships with the UA College of Education, College of Medicine and other K-12 schools and higher education institutions to expand the program.
Rex Kozak, a high school principal in Iowa who founded VREP in 2006 with support from the Mayo Clinic, said VREP and the technology it employes has broad application and facilitates learning in important areas that include technical reading and writing, research, communication and collaborative work, he said.
Another key element: VREP encourages students to take control of their own interests and learning, and to both experience and work through challenges and problems which, with support from the education community, has been shown to greatly improve student involvement and success, Kozak said.
"It is an absolute vertical climb for these students," Kozak said.
Using a range of software programs, VREP students have built models and simulations, designed images and produced videos around human anatomy, military equipment, U.S. and international history, music, the arts and other disciplines. Also, some have gone on to earn patents and to open their own businesses, Kozak said.
For Kist, she will be using the virtual reality lab that Raytheon has established to teach an elective afternoon course for 33 of her middle school students while also offering an after-school club twice weekly, which also is open to high school students.
"The students could be interested in fashion, gaming, movies or want to create a product around those things," Kist said. "We talk a lot about educational games, but this basically becomes their new game, where it is inquiry-based and the students drive their own learning, and there is power in that."
And because research shows that middle school is the point where students begin to lose interest in science and math, VREP collaborators intend for the program to help retain that curiosity.
Katelyn Johnston, who has a strong interest in animation and is taking Kist's class, said she is looking forward to what she will learn and create.
"I like to come up with my own stories. I have the basics down – like my characters and my scenes – but not the animation," said the 11-year-old Johnston. "I'm looking forward to how the process works."
And her father, Michael Johnston, said the self-directed, tech-driven educational opportunity is very attractive.
"It's a great opportunity, as a parent, to see what she learns and what she does with it," said Johnston, who graduated from the UA in May and is now serving as a mathematics and accounting tutor at Pima Community College.
Kist will allow her students to develop their own projects tied to academic goals, and students will then have to conduct their own research to complete their projects.
"They're problem solving and having a certain level of frustration. I know that's hard for students. It's hard for me," Kist said. "But I'll be allowing them to be a little frustrated and guiding them through that frustration. Using the assessments we have been in schools we don't allow students to experience that. So I think that will be a very valuable tool that comes out of this class."
And Kist said she is appreciative that her internship Raytheon and connection with VREP came as a direct result of her involvement with the MASTER-IP program, which collaborates with business partners, enabling UA students in the program – all practicing teachers – to complete summer internships in industry.
Though her summer internship with Raytheon is coming to a close, Kist will continue her work with the company's engineers and VREP at her school and as a UA MASTER-IP student.
"Our hope with this is that we can get a very, very strong base with TUSD and Vail, we can train other schools that will want to come on board," Kist said. "Then, it can spread like wildfire."