A visitor uses a virtual reality headset at the STELAR learning lab grand opening in the lower level of O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center on November 10, 2016 in St. Paul.

Graduate Students Use Virtual Reality to Connect With Teens

Last fall, the School of Education’s Candace Chou and a group of graduate students brought virtual reality to teens at St. Paul’s Rondo Community Library. As part of her course on the use of technology for instruction, Chou, an associate professor of teacher education, was eager to offer her students a hands-on experience in the field of tech and education through a research collaboration with the library.

With funding from the Center for the Common Good and help from STELAR, Chou and her students worked during the library's Createch Lab hours in engaging teens interested in technology with virtual reality (VR) headsets.

“In my course, I introduce students to emerging tools for K-12 educators,” Chou said. “I was doing research on virtual reality, and STELAR has these VR headsets for teachers to use in the classroom.”

With the VR headsets from STELAR, Chou’s students guided teens through various VR experiences including traveling inside a human body; swimming with sharks; navigating a marketplace in Delhi; visiting the Great Wall of China; and discovering the Amazon.

The partnership gave teens a chance to explore VR technology, and St. Thomas students an opportunity to work with a group of diverse learners. Real-life experience in the field is how you figure out strategies and ways to deal with a variety of situations, Chou said.

"The current demographic of teachers is 80 percent white," she said. "And yet, in 2014 it was the first time census data showed minority students are now the majority. I need to give my students more opportunities to work with diverse learners so they have more strategies and ways to work with them in different scenarios."

At the library, if teens weren't engaged, they could just walk away and do something else. Keeping their attention while teaching them how to use new technology was also part of the challenge for the grad school students.

“It's being ready for the future classroom,” Chou said about teaching her students. “Technology is going to keep coming and be even more prevalent in the classroom. I want them not only to know how to teach activities, but also how to use computers to engage with students, especially the younger generation."

Alice Welna, teen specialist at the St. Paul Public Library, said Chou and her students designed creative programming for teens at the library that sparked their passions and showed them the fun of learning through technology.

“This partnership hit on all of the values that are central to the library’s mission: to welcome all people to connect, learn, discover and grow,” Welna said. “The students’ visits to Createch helped us bring youth together to explore new technology and ways of learning.

“The St. Thomas students did a great job of tuning into the teens’ interests and learning styles to teach them about virtual reality in a fun and engaging way,” Welna added. “This partnership gave teens a chance to experiment with advanced technology they wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.”