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3-D "virtual reality" coming to Woodside classrooms

Twenty-first century learning has become a buzzword in local educational circles, but Woodside Elementary School will soon be using a system that could truly deserve that label - a desktop interactive virtual reality system for students.

Middle school science students will be the first to use Woodside's zSpace system, including computer monitors and software plus special glasses that allow users to view computer-generated images of objects as if they were floating in the air in front of them.

Students and teachers can manipulate the objects to view them from any angle, and even look inside them. The system can be used for lessons as varied as dissecting a human heart, exploring a street on another continent or in another century, peering inside an erupting volcano, manipulating the fragile wings of a butterfly or building a robot.

Woodside middle school science teachers Lisa White and Vinicio Merlino, and Steve Frank, who was recently promoted to be the middle school principal, were trained in the new system on Aug. 21, only two days after the new software was released.

Ms. White said the new teaching tool offers "a new page in our science book, one where things move off the two-dimensional paper page and into the realm of three dimensions." She said she found it "fascinating" to examine organisms, anatomical systems and molecules from every angle and at many depths.

Woodside is only the second school to learn how to use the newly released system, said trainer Elizabeth Lytle, director of educational transformation for Sunnyvale-based zSpace Inc., which makes the system.

Woodside Elementary School District Superintendent Beth Polito said the system cost $81,149 for the year, including 22 machines, teacher training and technical support. The school plans to have fifth-grade science and social studies classes use the system later in the year.

The zSpace system comes with an array of lessons that are tied to both state standards for subjects to be taught in each grade as well the national Common Core standards.

The company also has a library of 3-D models that currently numbers about 500, Ms. Lytle said. "Our goal is a thousand," she said. Models range from architecture and botany through historical artifacts and human anatomy to zoology.

In addition to the company's lessons, the company offers software developed by outside partners.

Teachers have their own machine and what they are doing can be projected on a smartboard so the entire class can see it. The system includes extra polarized glasses so onlookers can see what is being done on each workstation.

Superintendent Polito said the zSpace one-year pilot program's cost includes an $11,000 one-time setup, installation and training fee. The total cost of the program is funded from lottery revenue and an annual federal instructional technology grant, she said.

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