In two Horace Good Middle School classrooms, students gathered around tables, chattering and shouting about the various objects hovering in front of them. For a moment, they looked at an old-school armored tank, then a ray finned fish, then the Roman Colosseum.
In the center of the room, Horace Good geography and Kansas history teacher Matt Pfeifer selected an option on a smartphone and called out over the chaos.
“Again, this is not a bat,” he told the students. “It is actually a flying machine that da Vinci created. He just made it look like a bird to make it more aerodynamic.”
At Pfeifer’s command, the students, looking at the space in front of them through smartphone cameras, saw a realistic, three dimensional illustration of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous flying machine materialize over school tables on their screens. They walked around the tables with the phones to see the invention from different angles, pushed in to see it up close or look inside.
When the display changed to da Vinci’s machine, students buzzed excitedly as they had all morning. One student yelled out to no one in particular.
“It’s a bat. It’s Batman!”
The technology at the center of the activity was an augmented reality, or AR, tool on Google’s Expeditions app, an educational tool meant to make learning more immersive. The tool eventually will be available on all smartphones and tablets, but is currently still in development. On Wednesday, Horace Good became one of several schools across the country allowed to give its students a taste of the new feature, which Pfeifer and geography and Kansas history teacher Justin Reich hope to use in their classes next year.
“Rather than flipping through a textbook or trying to find something on the internet, it’s right in front of them,” Reich said.
The middle school students in Pfeifer and Reich’s classrooms were part of HG Elite, a group of Horace Good students with top of the line grades, attendance and behavior. The day dedicated to AR play was a reward.
Reich had applied to Google’s Expeditions AR Pioneer Program earlier in the school year, telling the tech giant about the district, the middle school and its students. He said he was glad the school was selected and able to use the technology before school let out.
Google sent a handful of smartphones and selfie stick-like appendages for students, Pfeifer and Reich to use. The teachers placed coded pieces of paper on tables throughout the room. When the teachers chose an image from a list of 70 topics, the three dimensional image would appear over the paper on the students’ screens, giving the illusion of impossible creatures and objects floating throughout the classroom.
Pfeifer said teachers could choose images of engines, trees, space crafts, bacteria, natural disasters, dinosaurs, fish, historical inventions, body systems and many other things. Once teachers selected an image, they could grow or shrink it on the students’ screens or put a spotlight on a certain section of the image to direct students’ attention. The app also would provide quick facts or curriculum guides for each image that teachers could use to guide discussions.
When Pfeifer selected a the skeletal system topic, a large skull appeared on students’ phones. It sat for a moment and then expanded, its individual bones breaking apart and floating outward. The class, clustered in groups around students who held the smartphones, let out a collective “whoa.”
Pfeifer said the technology could be a great teaching tool for many subjects and any grade level. Science classes could present organisms or body systems, geography classes could show tornado or earthquake models, history classes could teleport ancient places, people or objects into their classrooms. Whatever the lesson, the tool would allow teachers to bring their students face to face and let them interact with something they would otherwise only see in a stagnant photo or video.
Two seventh-graders playing with the app in Reich’s classroom, Brisa Perez-Cervantes and Vicente Ramos-Saldivar, said they had looked at a heart, earthquake, Roman chariots and dinosaurs and enjoyed looking inside the images. Perez-Cervantes said she would like to see science teachers incorporate the technology instead of showing photos from Google or textbooks. Ramos-Saldivar said using the app was like “going into a new world.”
“When it’s 3D you get to walk around it, but when it’s in a textbook it’s kind of flat. And let’s say you want it to be in a certain position, you could do that with this when you move the phone. You can’t do that when you move the textbook…” Perez-Cervantes said. “Getting to see it from different angles is kind of like being there.”
Reich said he had often tried to incorporate technology into his curriculum. Last year, he was the first teacher in the district to use Google Classroom and has since encouraged other teachers to use the platform. He also takes advantage of apps on the students’ school-distributed iPads and online resources like Google Earth or Quizlet Live to make lessons and review sessions more interactive. Reich said when kids come to his class, students don’t use a paper and pencil. Almost everything’s digital.
“I don’t know that we’re preparing them unless they’re interacting with technology. Everything is going to be digital based. They have to understand how to use technology, how to be efficient with technology. The more we put in their hands, the better they’re going to be, the better prepared they’re going to be for the workforce, or college, or anything they want to do once they get out of school,” Reich said.
Pfeifer said the fully developed AR segment of Google Expeditions will be available on all devices by August, and he and Reich plan to use it in their classes during the 2018-19 school year. He said he thinks other teachers would be interested as well.
“It’s a pretty cool supplement to what we normally do,” Reich said. “It’s a cool new tool and a new way to introduce some technology and get kids used to using technology. As you can see, they’re having fun with it.”
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.