East Marshall High School students ponder the sciences in the school’s virtual reality lab. East Marshall is in its fourth year with the program. Photo submitted
East Marshall High School students ponder the sciences in the school’s virtual reality lab. East Marshall is in its fourth year with the program. Photo submitted

Virtual reality is a reality in eight Iowa high schools. Next step, says Jack Harris: Using it as a teaching tool in every high school in the state. And thanks to a new low-cost system his company developed, he's hoping he won't need a reality check.

Harris, who is director of advanced manufacturing technology at Rockwell Collins, is the leader of the Iowa Virtual Reality Educational Pathfinder (I-VREP) project. The project's aim is to use virtual reality systems in high schools to help students better understand difficult science and technology concepts and information abstractions in order to increase the number of students pursuing further education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

"If the small implementations we do have were any indicator, the kids that have been using this stuff have gotten more excited about science and technology and the whole learning process," Harris said. "So, my expectation is that we are going to, by some factor, increase the number of graduates from Iowa high schools going into STEM education."

But by how much?

"My wild, wild dream is I'd like to triple it by 2020," he said.

Harris is convinced that the technology will better prepare students for an "era of innovation" by helping them be more creative and innovative. The project's big success has been East Marshall High School, the first Iowa school to use the technology, which is entering its fourth year utilizing the donated system. The success stories of students who suddenly went from loafing learners to excited learning enthusiasts because of the virtual reality system pour out of the school.

"We have kids who talk about the engineering and medical field today when we never heard them talking about those areas before," said East Marshall Principal Rex Kozak. "We see a different level of operation from them in terms of how they approach things - they seem to grow up a little bit."

Through the help of a $240,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Economic Development, the Iowa Business Council, the Iowa Department of Education, various other sources, and Harris's ability to garner the donations of virtual reality systems from local companies, seven more schools are now able to test the educational tool. Harris believes no other state is using virtual reality to Iowa's level, and said he routinely fields calls from leaders in other states who are inquiring about ways to incorporate virtual reality.

But to achieve Harris's wild, wild dream, which Harris admits won't be fully achieved through just virtual reality, the program will need to expand - and get cheaper.

Harris said some of the systems that were donated have a cost in the $30,000 to $50,000 range, which would have made expansion of the project to the desired level nearly impossible.

"We have almost 400 high schools now, so it adds up to be a pretty big number, especially if you are talking about the kinds of systems that got donated to the high schools, because those were pretty expensive," Harris said. "That just wasn't going to work. It wouldn't work from a sustainability point of view."

So Harris had one of his engineers try to put together a system for under $5,000.

"I wanted him to go to Best Buy or Staples or Office Max and buy some hardware and put it together for me," he said.

His engineer did him $2,500 better.

"We have defined a very, very low-cost system that could be applied in the school systems very cost-effectively," Harris said. "And all of a sudden what that would do, is allow us to potentially put these in all of our high schools."

Waukee High School will be the first. Though Harris and his engineers weren't able to poke any holes in the low-cost model before they donated it, the students at Waukee will provide the true test.

"We said, let's go ask the real users and find out for sure," Harris said. "I asked (Waukee) to go ahead and look at it and see if there were any things that they didn't think they could do that the other systems were capable of doing."

David Wilkerson, Waukee's superintendent, said they still haven't gotten the program up and running yet because they are still waiting for a computer that they ordered to drive the whole system. After they get the computer they'll have some additional wiring to do before launching.

Though the system was donated to the school by Rockwell Collins, the cost on Waukee's end was about $5,000, according to Wilkerson, who said they were easily able to get the funding for the program.

Wilkerson feels that the low-cost model will be attractive to other schools, and that if it came down to it, most schools would be able to find enough money in their budget to afford the program.

Harris plans to seek funding help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which would be used to expand the program. Harris's original grant proposal to the NSF was turned down right around three years ago at about the time East Marshall received its donated system. Harris, however, is optimistic that the success they are showing with I-VREP, along with the low-cost model, could help get a grant.

The program is gaining support, and Harris said there is a waiting list of other Iowa schools who want to get involved. He also said Deere & Co., a large user of virtual reality technology within its company, might be about to come in along the same lines as Rockwell Collins and support it as an industry advisor.

The Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC) at Iowa State has been helping support the project as well. Harris said one area that is lacking is a company to produce the different program applications for the virtual reality systems, but that he has had discussions with Jim Oliver, the director of VRAC, about that need.

"One, we need that; two, there aren't any companies doing it to the breadth and depth that I believe we need it," Harris said about development of programs. "So we are even talking about spinning off a company to do that."

Despite the support, expanding the I-VREP program to the level Harris hopes for could be tough.

"The outstanding question there is, once we show success, which I am absolutely convinced we will, then how do we scale this thing up in the time frame we would like to help make a difference," Harris said. "We have the universities working with us, and the community colleges, and have them thinking about what will they will do with students that come out of high school knowing this stuff, but the hard question for me right now is how we are going to scale it up to the level we need to."

According to Harris, it might come down to hoping for a grant or some level of excitement that forces the schools to continue the project - and that's just the virtual reality of the situation.