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Elementary Students Test VR Games from IUK Professor

First and second graders at Western Primary School in Indiana are piloting virtual reality games created by an assistant professor of computer science and informatics at Indiana University Kokomo.

Four students sitting in a row at desks in a classroom, all wearing virtual reality headsets. A teacher is standing behind the student closest to the camera and adjusting their headset.
(TNS) — A group of young children wore virtual reality headsets as they stood in the cafeteria at Western Primary School, on the last Friday before holiday break.

They made small movements while holding a controller in each hand, immersed with what was shown to them through the headset.

"That's the smallest watermelon I've ever seen," one student said.

This is VR Fridays at Western Primary, where students play virtual reality games as they work on their most basic math skills.

Developed by Md Nour Hossain, an assistant professor of computer science and informatics at Indiana University Kokomo, and his students, the games aim to teach skills computational thinking skills.

The games were piloted this fall semester by first and second graders at Western Primary.

Computational thinking is a problem-solving method all kids learn — or should learn — in school. A simple example is how one would go about converting kilograms to pounds.

So are word problems, such as if there are 25 apples and five people, how many apples would each get if divided evenly.

One game has students sort five balls into two different colored groups. The game helps students learn number bonds, which are building blocks of arithmetic.

The five balls can be split up in several different ways. Three in the red group, two in blue group. One in blue, four in red, etc. Using the VR controllers they pick up the balls on screen and drop them into necessary groups.

A student wins the game after they've completed every possible number bond. Artificial intelligence make the games more difficult as the child progresses.

"The kids have a lot of fun with it," said Connor Schweck, a junior computer science student at IUK. "They're really focused on it. They love it. They absolutely love it."

Schweck, from Noblesville, was one of four students who worked with Hossain to develop the games.

The games align with Western curriculum and Indiana standards.

"I've seen a big improvement with my ones who didn't have a strong number sense," said Jennifer Duke, a second grade teacher at Western Primary.

Deb Harrison, a school volunteer, said the VR games have really helped the quieter kids in class.

Hossain came up with the concept for VR math games after a previous project showed a high rate of attrition in college computer science programs. Computational thinking was a major reason.

That's bad news for computer science programs where computational skills are an absolute must. Hossain's goal is to reduce the attrition in those programs.

"You can't teach computation at the college level," he said.

For computation to stick, students must learn the skills early, but that can be difficult in large classes where one-on-one attention is limited. VR games ensure one-on-one learning.

"Anytime you have some curriculum with a little bit of movement, the kids love that," said first grade teacher Mary Grinstead.

"The more hands on the kids are, the better they'll do," added Duke.

Students picked up on the games quickly. IUK students said the young learners had the games figured out within a week.

Nick Thomson, the lead computer science student on the project and a Western grad himself, spent hundreds of hours playing the games looking for bugs and issues. He also recorded his own voice that speaks to students as they play the games.

While the college kids are good at finding bugs and issues, their younger counterparts are even better.

"We find a lot, but the kids are the best," said junior Ben Earl, of Noblesville.

The IUK students said they enjoyed working on the project as it was a change of pace, compared to their typical class work. They had to think about how to make the games engaging — visuals and audio over just text, for example — while also considering who the games were for.

"There's things we think are intuitive, but it's not to a growing mind," said Ricardo Esquivel, a senior from Noblesville.

"This is the challenge of teaching," Hossain added. "You have to put yourself in their shoes."

The team from IUK made weekly visits to Western Primary and will continue to do so next semester.

They intend to gather data on student performance.

"We are ambitious," Hossain said. "We can ensure a 100 percent success rate."

Ambition isn't just reserved for student success.

Hossain and his students intend to create VR modules for every grade and make them widely accessible. They're thinking nationwide and globally.

©2024 the Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.