The IPFW visualization center doesn't look like much when you enter. The windows have been blocked; the temperature is slightly higher, and a large projection screen cuts the room about in half.
Put on a special pair of 3-D glasses, however, and the small, dark room turns into foreign terrain that needs to be navigated by military forces in order to provide aid to another unit, or a maze of objects to move through with the touch of a button.
The visualization center at IPFW recently received funding from a $1.5 million Lilly Endowment grant through the talent initiative. The grant for the student-run center is targeted for enhancements to the center, the training of students and to bring high-tech jobs to the area. The technology used to create the 3-D center can be difficult to come by; fewer than 10 institutions in the state have it.
Beomjin Kim, a professor and director of the center, said the question really is “how can we utilize cutting-edge technology across different areas?”
The center is working toward answering that question with the help of area businesses, including Raytheon, a major sponsor of the center's work.
Aside from military usage, the technology can also be used in the medical field, Kim said. Brain surgery is complicated and dangerous, but using this technology would allow surgeons to see the human brain in 3-D instead of making decisions based on a projected image like a CT scan. The technology would allow surgeons performing complicated procedures to practice in advance.
Kim said IPFW faculty members are currently working with area companies to develop practical application for the visualization center.
Challenging young minds through collaboration
The excitement of the center's potential spread to the science education department at the university, and with the help of another grant, students built computers that acted very much like projectors in the visualization center. The computers were given to elementary school teachers to study if students could learn concepts better by using the technology.
IPFW computer science students built and developed the technology and taught teachers how to use it in their classrooms. Kim said some students received a small stipend for their work, but many participated on a volunteer basis.
“I'm so happy students are willing to donate their time to the community,” he said. “The process can be tedious and frustrating, but they never complained.”
The partnership was with Fort Wayne Community Schools' Study Elementary, a school with 90 percent of students qualifying for free- and reduced-price lunches as well as a large population of English as a second language or ESL students.
On her first day of teaching second grade at Study two years ago, Amber Oswald began developing a curriculum to teach students phases of the moon using the 3-D visualization technology.
“It was worth it, but it was a big commitment,” she said.
The topic isn't usually addressed in second grade; usually it isn't taught at all until fifth grade.
“Normally younger students don't get to work with astronomy,” said Zeynep Isik-Ercan, an early childhood assistant professor at IPFW who worked with Oswald on the study of student outcomes. “We wanted to challenge their little minds.”
Technology yields positive results
Isik-Ercan has since written scholarly journal articles on the study and research from the collaboration.
“Astronomy is one of the hardest subjects to learn, not only for young children, but also for adults,” she wrote in one article. “However, the results clearly indicate that children as young as second-graders can learn about sun, moon and earth; their shapes, the relationship among them, such as day and night, the moon's changing appearance, and seasons with the help of 3-D visualization.”
Isik-Ercan interviewed students before the lessons and after to assess their knowledge. Many couldn't explain astronomical concepts or explained them using tales or fantasy, like a man on the moon. None could explain why seasons change, and most didn't know that the moon moved at all.
But after the unit, about 90 percent of the students could explain how the moon orbits the earth, and half of the students could explain why the moon looks different at different times of the year, compared with none before. Students not only had a better understanding of day and night, the project also sparked an interest in space through reading and writing.
“The teachers noted that 3D visualization stimulated children's interest in space and that using 3-D visualization in combination with other teaching methods — literacy experiences, videos and photos, simulations, discussions and presentations — supported student learning,” Isik-Ercan wrote.
Visualization technology reaches all students
The use of the technology was so successful for the second-graders, Study expanded the unit last year to fourth grade. These students take the science portion of the ISTEP+ standardized test which includes astronomy questions.
Fourth-grade teacher Lisa Herrington used the technology in her class last year. She said previously teachers used physical models or others to try to explain concepts like the moon's rotation around the earth.
“Those are nothing compared to the effectiveness of this 3-D technology,” she said. “My struggling kids, uninterested students and special (education) kids got it just as well as my straight-A students.”
Oswald reported her second-graders wanted to do more research on space and became more interested in reading nonfiction. Even parents became interested, she said. Kids talked about it at home, and parents wanted to know more about it at parent-teacher conferences.
Herrington said students began connecting the concepts they learned to other subjects like math.
“I hadn't seen that enthusiasm before,” she said. “This inspired a whole lot of exploration, learning and discovery.”
Herrington said this opportunity was particularly special for low-income students at Study who often “lack life experiences and background knowledge.”
“When else in their lives will they be able to experience 3-D technology? This makes it make sense to them,” she said.
“We're enabling children to think more deeply because we're providing the tools to do that,” Isik-Ercan said. “This is a nice opportunity for this diverse population, something ESL students could experience even without knowing English.”
Funding challenges halt expansion to other schools
One of the two computers at Study that enable to 3-D visualization to be projected onto a screen remains in Oswald's room. The 3-D glasses, which require charging, are kept in small cloth bags. It doesn't take long for Oswald to pull up a large image of the moon, which pops out as soon as the glasses go on.
Last year, Study also shared the 3-D visualization equipment with Abbett Elementary School, another school with a high population of low-income students, but Herrington said transporting the equipment was stressful because it's so expensive.
Ideally, Isik-Ercan said the technology would be brought to all schools in FWCS, but the funding for the project, which came entirely from grants, has dried up.
Study continues the astronomy units and is waiting for the release of this year's ISTEP+ scores to see how the class of second-grade students, now in fourth grade, will perform on the science portion.