There’s a plague in the remote city of Sudura. Fish have disappeared, and food is nearly gone.
Enter IKS Highlander, an interactive vessel; the captain and crew have the power to go underwater and find the cause of the plague and save the town.
The mission requires teamwork from 15 students at J.E. Harrison Middle School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, who must work together in the life-size, video-game-style classroom, with florescent lights, tiered seating and iPads built into each station to save the town.
“It’s a whole new level of learning,” said eighth-grader Olivia Brophy, 13. “It’s learning, but it’s fun learning, and kids want to do it. It’s an amazing experience.”
The IKS Highlander, a hands-on learning space, opened last Thursday at Harrison. The room is one of six life-size simulators from education-technology firm Dream Flight Adventures that takes students on missions through imaginative adventures — sometimes, with a twist, like “The Magic School Bus.”
“The whole idea is that one fantastic vehicle can take the kids anywhere they can imagine — into outer space and under the ocean waters,” said Gary Gardiner, creative director for Dream Flight Adventures, who came up with the idea for the life-size simulators after attending space camp as a fifth-grader. He built the first prototype in his home. Then, he debuted the idea with a classroom simulator in the Shaler Area School District.
“When the kids walk into these missions, they become the captain and crew of these vessels,” Gardiner said. “Our main goal is for the kids to come out cheering in the end and also to learn something.”
Baldwin-Whitehall received a $50,000 grant from the Grable Foundation for the simulator. The district funded a portion of the project.
A simulator also was built at the Penn Hills Elementary Center. Others are located in Lower Burrell and Washington, D.C., with one being constructed in Venezuela, Gardiner said.
Baldwin-Whitehall’s classroom simulator is the biggest yet, with subwoofers in the floors so the room vibrates, and students get a 3D experience. The simulator was built in a former teacher work area.
A vacant classroom next door will be turned into a Mission Ops lab, where teachers can spend weeks teaching students about the topics before entering the simulator, director of programs Darlene DeFilippo said.
While Dream Flight Adventures already has several missions, “Contaminant,” the underwater mission to save Sudura, was created with Harrison Middle School in mind.
It adds another component to the school’s “Wonders of Water” interdisciplinary theme, where students already raise trout in the classrooms to release them into a creek and learn about drainage issues at the Wingfield Pines Conservation Area.
“Water is so global. If you read anything in science journals, water is going to be the topics of the future because it’s not only an economic issue, it’s a political issue, it’s social issues. Everything we do is surrounded by water,” DeFilippo said.
The hope is for all eighth-graders to go through the mission this school year, DeFilippo said. Next year, students in the sixth through eighth grades will begin to use the classroom, she said.
Students at Harrison are clamoring about the IKS Highlander and can’t wait for their turn, Brophy said.
“It blurs the lines between education and entertainment,” Principal Michael Wetmiller said. “It’s like walking into Disney, but it all ties back into learning.”
Students are learning about the ecosystem, food chains and contamination through the mission.
“It’s not just about the mission. It’s about teamwork,” Wetmiller said.