One-R Elementary first-graders sat in awe as they looked at images on virtual-reality headsets Monday morning.

“Wow,” one student said. “This is awesome.”

Twenty students in Kelli Wemhoff’s first-grade class were able to see and learn about Chichén Itzá and Chacchoben in Mexico, along with Aztec and Mayan ruins, through the headsets.

“We got a new reading curriculum this year and there is a lot of history in the stories we are reading about,” Wemhoff said. “For the kids to really connect to that, I knew I needed to do something other than just read a story or show them pictures. I wanted to give them an opportunity to see beyond what they are hearing and see in pictures.”

Wemhoff told the students they saw images of what the ruins look like today and not necessarily what they looked like years ago.

When she asked her students what they saw in their headsets, they said they saw things such as a temple, staircases and a pyramid. Wemhoff said the pyramid is 30 feet tall.

Heather Callihan, technology integrationist for Northwest Public Schools, said the virtual-reality headsets have been “up and running” for two weeks, with the check-out schedule to use them full through the end of the week.

She said the district received about $9,000 in grant funding from the Grand Island Community Foundation, the Wolbach Foundation and the Northwest Education Foundation to purchase 27 headsets. Callihan added Computer Concepts also helped the district with the purchase.

“We currently have a set of 27 Google Expeditions virtual-reality headsets,” she said. “Google Expeditions is an opportunity for our students to be immersed in and to explore cultures, countries and places they may not normally get to visit. They are able to visit these places with the guidance of a teacher, be immersed in the experience and learn in a different way than they typically would from a textbook alone.”

When teachers use the virtual-reality headsets with their students, Callihan said, they download the specific expedition on their device, which is then pushed out to the headsets. From there, teachers can “basically click through” and guide their students through what they are seeing on their headsets.

“We know in education that any time we provide a rich experience — something that students would not necessarily have the opportunity to see or hear — it is a win-win,” she said. “We also know that technology is advancing so quickly, and in providing these opportunities, students can visit colleges and have other experiences.”

Some college courses, specifically in science, are centered around virtual reality, Callihan said, so having the headsets allows students to already have experience working with them before attending college.

Callihan said the feedback from students and teachers has “been very positive” with kids being engaged and enthusiastic about using them to learn.

“Students are able to experience it (learning) at their own pace and are able to do the things that they want to see. They are asking a lot of real-world questions, too,” she said. “What I love is listening to the students and how they respond. They are so engaged and responding, ‘Whoa. How is this possible?’ or ‘I never thought I would see this.’ I love seeing kids use these headsets and listening to how they respond to the experience.”

Wemhoff said she hopes to use the headsets again to learn about future class topics such as astronomy.

“It is about building those experiences for the students to remember, not just the little facts,” she said. “They will truly remember this.”

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