Woodstock Community Unit School District 200's Superintendent, Mike Moan, and Assistant Superintendent for Early Childhood and Elementary Education, Kelly Krueger, inside the Challenger Learning Center. 

May 01 2020

Immersive Learning Takes Students Out of the Classroom — and Out of This World

Interactive, digital tools and mixed reality hardware help create an unforgettable learning experience.

It’s the field trip fifth-grade students in Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 buzz about.

They chat excitedly during the bus ride to Olson Elementary in Woodstock, Ill. Then they reach the Challenger Learning Center, which is housed in the school, and they step into a new world.

The center is elaborately decorated with a space theme that includes a replica mission control room. The students separate into groups before collaborating on simulated missions to Mars. Overall, it’s an engaging, immersive learning experience that can’t easily be replicated in the typical classroom.

In the learning center, students have to think creatively and critically, using trial and error to solve problems, and learn from each other, says Cindy Maire, a fifth-grade teacher at Mary Endres Elementary in Woodstock. “They really have to work together to be successful,” she says.

Immersive learning involves using technology to enhance instruction in a simulated space — either a physical one such as the Challenger Learning Center or a virtual environment using mixed reality. The approach addresses a key goal of education: to make lessons meaningful and memorable.

At Challenger, groups of students simulate a mission to Mars from the planet’s moon Phobos. They have to solve problems such as dodging an asteroid. They complete activities focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

When they return to their regular classroom, they complete follow-up activities, says Keely Krueger, assistant superintendent for early childhood and elementary education. They learn about communication, collaboration and problem-solving — skills that transcend multiple disciplines, she says.

“They’re learning that through the mission control and expedition to Mars experience. They’re also learning those skills when they’re on the STEM side of things, when they’re doing the International Space Station and biomimicry in the other programs that we brought into the STEM side of the day,” she says.

The activities tie in lessons students are completing in other classes, such as math and reading. The simulation helps them make real-world connections to the other instruction. It “brings all of those pieces together, it makes their learning more meaningful,” says George Oslovich, Woodstock’s technology director.

The idea is that students don’t just complete tasks, Oslovich says. Instead, students should realize “the task is an end result to what I’m learning, and I will have to retain that forever.

“Challenger tries to make that happen.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how immersive technology champions the Four C's of learning.

Building a World of Learning From the Ground Up

The Woodstock district acquired the Challenger Learning Center from Aurora University in 2019. Woodstock officials had to move quickly to get the space, and its new home at Olson, ready for the new school year.

The school already had a sufficient network to support the center, Oslovich says. The national Challenger Learning Center organization handled the wiring of the space.

“All my staff needed to do was provide them with an Ethernet connection that connected to our LAN, and we were all set and ready to go,” he says.

The technology selections were intentional, with each addressing specific needs the educators wanted for the learning center. As they thought through the space’s design, Oslovich says, they asked questions such as, “How can we take what’s on the tablet and put it up on the Promethean board so that we are able to see what’s going on there? And how can students be interactive with that Promethean board back and forth?”

Airtame adaptors also enhance collaboration by enabling devices and digital screens to interact with each other. The learning center is also filled with technology meant to foster collaboration such as Promethean boards, Chromebook tablets and AR and VR devices using Google Pixels.

Student at the Challenger Learning Center

With immersive technology, students are able to work together to complete space missions at the Challenger Learning Center. Photo Credit: Challenger Learning Center.

“What we started with was, ‘Here’s the activities you want students to be able to do, and what’s the best way for them to have this type of experience?’ If we want them to really be able to see what happens on the space shuttle, for example, and walk through the space shuttle, virtual reality was the best way to be able to do that rather than showing pictures in a book or having kids just look it up on the computer,” Oslovich says.

There’s also a broader benefit to the Challenger experience: It shows students the world and the opportunities that exist in it, Superintendent Mike Moan says. “We want to give them the skills and the ability to succeed, but also plant that seed of the dream.

Hopefully, Moan says, that seed is planted when students visit the learning center, “whether they’re going to be an astronaut, an astrophysicist, whatever they want to do.

“And if that happens for a portion of our students, it was well worth the effort.”

Photography by Bob Stefko