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NSBA 2024: Technology Educates Scholars at New Orleans Charter School

VR headsets and 3D printers help the Verizon Innovation Learning Lab create interest in STEM at the Dorothy Height Charter School. Educators and school leaders toured it during the National School Boards Association Annual Conference.

The third-floor classroom did not appear to be the kind of place where middle school students could learn about biology; there were no microscopes, scalpels or dead frogs, and it didn’t smell like formaldehyde.

Rather, this was the Verizon Innovation Learning Lab at New Orleans’ Dorothy Height Charter School, where the telecommunications company has provided augmented learning tools, virtual reality headsets, 360-degree cameras, and three-dimensional printers. And it’s where school officials on Friday showcased students using that technology, as education leaders toured the campus during the National School Boards Association (NSBA) 2024 Annual Conference.

As a Verizon Innovation School, every student in grades 5-8 at Dorothy Height receives a web-browsing device for the entire academic year and is guaranteed Internet service to use it at home. This also lets the school maintain better communication with families and ensure after-school homework support, Principal LaKeysha Arthur said.

“It’s (Verizon’s support) allowing us to close the technology gap for our students and our parents,” she said.

And so, with passion and precision, a seventh grader impressed a crowd of educators and school decision-makers from across the country as he identified a frog’s liver, split it in half, provided close-up detailed images, and explained how the organ works before moving onto the digestive session, on which he was equally knowledgeable.

He did all of this in a matter of seconds and a few clicks of a touchpad, via a tablet that interfaced with an augmented reality “merge cube,” containing dozens of lessons and challenges in a variety of areas of science.

“For students not to get disgusted,” said the boy, a student at Dorothy Height Charter School, “we use this.”

The learning institution serves a mostly minority and low-income population. Nineteen percent of students are still learning English, and 11 percent are considered unhoused. But all 848 children at the pre-K to eighth-grade school are referred to as scholars, not students, Arthur explained. Dorothy Height, she said, has reached high performance benchmarks in recent years; and in some math assessments by grade level, it leads the entire state of Louisiana.

“All students deserve an excellent educator, and an excellent education,” Arthur said. The school’s mission, she added, is to prepare every student to continue their education in college.

The visiting NSBA members were allowed to try all the tools in the Innovation Learning Lab, and students in the upper grades were there to show them how and demonstrate their own work. A sixth-grade boy explained the limitless possibilities of the 3D printer, where the scholars can materialize their designs.

“I’ve made Pokémon (figures), sunglasses,” the sixth-grader said. “You can make anything you could imagine.”

Dara Coleman, the lab’s staff mentor and dean of instructional science, said she has noticed a major increase in interest about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects among boys and girls since the lab was established two years ago. Pizza could have helped, in a way.

The VR headsets, Coleman explained, let the young scholars become pizzas and tour the insides of the digestive system. They get chewed, make their way through the stomach and intestines, and exit the body into a familiar place. The kids find it all very fun — and funny — but their explanations of what they recalled from the journey were quite impressive when the headsets came off.

“Our goal is to expose them to every aspect of STEM,” Coleman said.

The innovation tools, Arthur added, can also be used for English language arts and social studies.

“Yes, you are in New Orleans,” she said, “but when you put on those glasses you’re in Paris.”

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Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.