Jennifer Alpers, Administrator of Fairfax County (Va.) PublicSchools’ West Potomac Academy, says immersive technologies take learning to the next level.

Apr 13 2023

K–12 Schools Use Mixed and Virtual Reality to Immerse Students in Future Careers

Today’s career and  technical education programs use realistic simulations to bridge the gap between the classroom and hands-on experience.

A student slips a mixed reality headset over her eyes and immediately she is face-to-face with a life-size skeleton so realistic, she reaches out to touch it.

“And you can go inside of it too,” she hears another student say.

“Really?” she asks.

“Yes, you can go up close,” she’s told. “Walk up to it.”

She takes a few steps forward and is suddenly “inside” the skeleton, looking out at the world from inside the rib cage. 

These students are studying human biology using a variety of advanced technologies available in the Immersive Learning Center, a giant blue bus parked at West Potomac Academy in Alexandria, Va.

The career and technical education program at West Potomac is one of many across the nation that use immersive technologies in CTE classes to give students realistic simulations of certain career fields.

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The bus comes from The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Community Medi-Corps Program in Washington, D.C. The nearby university designed and built the ILC with grant funding from GO Virginia.

“The purpose is to transform learning from the classroom, which is often in 2D,” says Jennifer Alpers, administrator of Fairfax County Public Schools’ West Potomac Academy. “We’re submersing students in scenarios that we can’t duplicate or re-create in the four walls of the classroom.”

West Potomac expanded its use of mixed reality in its CTE programming during the pandemic, when schools quickly pivoted to bring as many CTE classes online as they could. However, now that students are back in physical classrooms, K–12 schools continue to use these technologies in their CTE programs.

“Some people underestimate AR and VR in education,” says Rachael Mann, former board member of the Association for Career and Technical Education and current director of CTE for the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pa. “You can use it to take apart a million-dollar piece of equipment that a kid could never touch in real life, or to practice public safety exercises. It’s also good for collaborating across time zones and around the globe. Students can even use VR to sketch, create and design.”

Justin Wilkinson
That’s how you help your community, by exposing students to those high-skill, high-wage jobs that maybe they wouldn’t have considered at a later age.”

Justin Wilkinson CTE Director, Harnett County Schools

FCPS Health Students Practice Treating Realistic Virtual Patients

Before the Immersive Learning Center was part of the curriculum, West Potomac’s CTE program was similar to most others: a mix of class lectures from industry professionals and project-based learning. Today, the ILC is packed with immersive equipment, such as tablets, HoloLens headsets and walls of interactive screens, that greatly expand learning opportunities.

“For students, this is above and beyond what they expected in an academic class,” Alpers says. “They’re up and moving and mastering skills. They jumped right into this, and they’re already teaching us.”

Students training to become emergency medical technicians, for example, can interact with a screen full of avatars. Using artificial intelligence, the program interprets human speech and tracks movement with sensors to react to student decisions, such as the actions they take when an avatar is stung by a bee and has a severe allergic reaction.

READ MORE: Learn how schools are using virtual reality for field trips.

“We’ve created a high-stakes environment with no risk to students or property,” says Linda Zanin, director of strategic partnerships at The GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Zanin says the ILC offers a wide range of realistic simulations, from explosions in a chemical lab to a car crash scene, which students can use to practice caring for the injured.

“It’s more than just pretending in a classroom. The goal is to bridge the gap between the classroom and hands-on experience to create a safe learning environment that also supports an inquiry dialog and critical thinking,” Zanin adds.


The percentage of survey respondents who cited immersive technology as the technology most likely to be used for workforce training and development

Source: Perkins Coie, 2020 Augmented and Virtual Reality Survey Report, March 2020

Rural Connections in Harnett County

In North Carolina, another CTE vehicle is making the rounds. Justin Wilkinson, director of CTE for Harnett County Schools, built a trailer to address some of the digital inequities in the rural district.

“Because HCS students do hands-on learning in CTE, the pandemic really impacted our learners,” says Wilkinson.

His team used a grant from a local corporation to outfit a trailer with both real and virtual tools for CTE classes. Students use VR headsets and applications to simulate working as an electrician, with no risk of electrocution. They also practice welding using a simulation program by Realityworks, which tracks students’ motions and consistency, providing immediate feedback.

DIG DEEPER: Schools partner with businesses to train tomorrow’s IT workforce.

Lindsey Hardee, school-to-career coordinator at HCS, sees the trailer as an opportunity to expand student awareness of industry careers and trades. “Most learners see what their parents and other adults do, but they may not be able to see all the world has to offer,” Hardee says.

However, with VR tools, the team is able to “reach students at that younger age and let them know that anything is possible for them,” Wilkinson says. “That’s how you help your community, by exposing students to those high-skill, high-wage jobs that maybe they wouldn’t have considered at a later age.”

VR Preps Juvenile Detainees for a Fresh Start

At Ralph C. Starkey High School in Circleville, Ohio, students have a wide range of CTE options, from landscaping and horticulture to automotive technology and construction.

The school is part of the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility, and teachers and administrators in the CTE program help students earn credentials they can use in potential careers.

Tom Cunningham, a CTE teacher at Starkey, was instrumental in adding a virtual forklift to the facility. The simulator trains students to operate three kinds of forklifts used in various settings.

“It gives them a genuine experience, with the same type of steering and footpads you would see in a real forklift,” Cunningham says. “Students wear Oculus VR headsets to practice in different environments and experience different distances and levels of depth perception. It feels like it’s actually moving. High school kids want that virtual setting. It’s exciting for them.”

RELATED: Why 70 percent of students at this school are choosing CTE.

While one student is operating the machinery, groups of three or four students can view what the operator is doing on a separate screen, gaining knowledge for their turn in the simulator.

Christine Kohler, career tech director for the Ohio Department of Youth Services, would like to add more VR tools to the CTE program. “With the way the world is going, the technology component is important,” she says. “If there’s any way we can advance the students’ skill sets, we should.”

The Hershey School’s Mann agrees.

“AR and VR will become mainstream in the next few years,” she predicts. “If you’re not using it already, my advice is to get it, and get it fast.”

Photography by Ryan Donnell

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