From 3-D printing to holograms to the emerging wave of virtual-reality headsets, three-dimensional technologies continue to capture the imaginations of some K-12 educators.
That range—and a set of older 3-D tools, including a shoebox full of 3-D glasses from the past few decades—were on display this morning at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, being held here this week.
“It’s really all about visualization,” said Len Scrogan, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado-Denver and the former technology director at the state’s 30,000-student Boulder Valley Schools.
“We aimed 3-D at the most stubborn, difficult learning problems where kids stumble all the time,” Scrogan said. “Never use 3-D for what’s easy to learn or easy to teach.”
The focus in Scrogan’s session, titled “Depth-Defying Learning: Exploring the Top 10 3-D Developments,” was less about pedagogy than cool tools, however.
Take, for example, a new virtual-reality desktop tool from Silicon Valley-based company zSpace, which displayed its wares during the session.
Users sit in front of a large flat-screen monitor. They wear special glasses and hold a stylus that is connected to the display. The product combines stereoscopic imaging technology (to give a 3-D view), head-tracking technology (to move the object being viewed around in response to the user’s motions), and the ability to manipulate objects using the stylus.
Betsy McDonald, a design and programming teacher at North Carolina’s private Cary Academy, tested out an application that lets users—presumably students—explore an animated 3-D human heart. Using the glasses and stylus, she could rotate the heart and bring it “closer” to her eyes, feel its beating in her hand (via the stylus), and unpeel layers to see the organ’s inner workings.
While it was undoubtedly engaging, McDonald said, it wasn’t immediately evident how useful a classroom tool the zSpace technology would be.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get beyond the bells and whistles,” she said.
George Warren, the vice president of sales and education for zSpace said the company only recently decided to make the transition from commercial to educational uses of its products.
“We were looking to be the desktop standard for virtual reality, but that seems to have gone to phones and head-mounted devices,” Warren said. “We just weren’t finding the traction, so we decided to prove the concept out in education. So far, it’s been wildly successful.”
About 50 school districts, from New York to California, are using zSpace, he said. In addition to the hardware, the company has developed a series of apps and curricular resources to help teach subjects such as physics and circuits.
Scrogan also featured a range of mobile apps that can be used in the classroom.
Marisa Manocchio, an engineering instructor at the public Bio-Med Science Academy in Rootstown, Ohio, tested out an app called Autodesk 123D Catch, which allows users to create their own 3-D images by taking a series of photos of an object.
Manocchio was enthusiastic about the possibilities.
“It would be cool if they could take pictures of objects they want to model, instead of having to start from scratch,” she said.
Scrogan maintained that teaching with 3-D technology can easily help students to be more engaged and to retain more information. Effective instruction can help them to do mental reconstructions of complex concepts and systems, improve spatial understanding and related mathematical concepts, encourage digital media creation, and even improve students’ vision, he said.
Photo: Participants at a panel on 3-D technology in education at the ISTE 2015 conference. Benjamin Herold for Education Week.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.