Booming in Buffalo

A community agrees on a truly transformative tool for teaching and learning.

GUEST COLUMN| by Joe Parlier

CREDIT zSpace image.pngKriner Cash views his district as on the cusp of a major renaissance, parallel to the one that the western New York state city of Buffalo is experiencing. And as superintendent, he has high expectations for what can be achieved in Buffalo Public Schools (BPS). “We want to become best-in-class in urban education for the whole country,” he says.

As a transformative superintendent, Cash launched the New Education Bargain for BPS less than a year ago, an initiative with six major elements, all interconnected and all necessary for the district to grow and grow fast.

Every time I visit a class, the kids are 100 percent engaged, they absolutely love it and they can’t wait to get a visitor’s attention and share what they are doing.

Through the New Education Bargain, the district has instituted Rigorous Early Elementary Education with significantly reduced class sizes in the early grades, launched five New Innovative High Schools, 13 Community Schools and ratified a new contract with the Teachers Federation.

In early 2016, BPS Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Sanjay Gilani saw a new mixed reality technology that he knew supported the vision for transforming the district’s schools.

zSpace allows students to learn STEM subjects using immersive images that they can move and manipulate in applications across a wide-range of standards-aligned curriculum. The all-in-one-computer combines elements of VR and AR to create mixed reality computing experiences that are interactive and lifelike. Each all-in-one computer features tracking eyewear and a stylus, allowing students to interact with objects and really understand the science behind them. Unlike other virtual reality solutions, such as head-mounted displays, it enables interaction and group collaboration. In addition, it empowers students to “learn by doing” in an environment where it is easy to undo mistakes, make changes, and not worry about material costs or clean up.

BPS began to roll out its first such learning labs during the 2016-2017 school year.

Seeing the Changes

Twice weekly, Superintendent Cash visits schools to see the changes from the New Education Bargain in action. Visiting one of the district’s Innovative High Schools with a zSpace Lab, he had the opportunity to experience the mixed reality environment for himself.

He said, “As soon as I tried it, I knew that we were doing something special. It was so clear and animated. Students were fascinated and totally engaged in the learning.’

Continuing, Cash said, it has all of the best features of good cognitive learning, but also visual and digital and tactile – it gets you entirely engaged in learning simple to the most advanced content can be easily learned because it takes the abstract and makes it clear for our whole spectrum of learners. Combined with good teachers, it is a one-two punch for improving learning that is unprecedented.”

CTO Gilani introduced Sarah Edwards, the district’s supervisor of instructional technology, to this solution and she had the chance to experience it for herself at ISTE 2016. “At first, I was skeptical, but in five minutes, I was blown away,” she said.

Edwards returned to Buffalo to roll out eight such labs in the 2016-2017 school year and more labs will be added during the 2017-2018 school year. She said that the ultimate goal is to have a lab in all of the district’s 55 schools.

Motivated By Opportunity

The motivation? Edwards said that the solution provides the opportunity for hands on learning across the curriculum and the opportunity to interact with the content. “Every time I visit a class, the kids are 100 percent engaged, they absolutely love it and they can’t wait to get a visitor’s attention and share what they are doing. It is absolutely the right thing for our students at the right time.”

Edwards noted that because of BPS’s diverse immigrant population, some of the girls in the district are new to education and school. “We had one sixth grader who couldn’t wait to show me. She told me that it opened her eyes to the content and said, ‘Now that I have seen this, I really want to be a doctor.’ It opened the world of possibilities for her.”

Tracy Nagowski, who teaches fifth grade math and science at Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School, is also seeing the ways that the tool is expanding her students’ world. “Our students don’t get a lot of opportunity to vacation, to go camping, to interact with anything other than the six-block square that they live on. [This] puts the world at their fingertips.”

It has also changed the way that Nagowski teaches. “When I plan a lesson, we start in the classroom and set some purpose to what we are going to do and then we go into the lab. The students are very independent. I am just the facilitator.”

“I know that my students have met their learning objectives when I hear them discussing what they have learned. They naturally work with partners and they are learning together side by side.”

A World of Learning

Even the youngest learners see the ways that the technology is changing learning. A second grader said, “We learn in more of an entertaining way because it is in 3D. It is fun to work with a partner. If the choice is Franklin’s Lab versus a textbook, I would definitely pick [the mixed technology lab] because you can learn tons of stuff about science and engineering.”

Aniya Clough, seventh-grader at West Hertel Academy, also prefers learning with mixed reality. She said, “[It] is really spectacular.I like this way better than learning with a textbook. You can actually pull apart a heart or see the insides of a cow. It feels like you are touching it – it is so real. This is much better than having a textbook where you are just throwing paper around. “

Aniya sees the possibilities for learning with such technology throughout her education, “I would like to have this all day, every day, for the rest of my school. It’s like you are in a different world. You get to try out new things. The possibilities are endless. It gives a new dimension to learning.”

Noah Spalding, a science teacher at Aniya’s school, is seeing student engagement and achievement spike. He said, “When learning with [this tool], many students that are not able to read a lab or have not had much interest in learning are much more interested. Their participation and their grades have gone way up.”

A Transformative Technology

They are also increasing parent engagement in the school community. Spalding’s school has a Saturday Academy where it is open to the community. He said, “We had a parent, who is a mechanic, come in and he was using [the technology]. He found a program with every part of a car in it and found me to tell me that this would be a great way to teach auto mechanics.”

Demario A. Strickland, principal at Harvey Austin School, said “Things are getting exciting here at BPS with our new community schools program. A big part of the community schools program is a push on technology integration. In a high poverty area, students don’t get the opportunities that other students get.”

He said that this technology is transforming the way teachers teach as well as how students learn. He said, “I observed a teacher’s lesson with her class using [the tool]. I’m a big chemistry person and they were learning about electrons, neutrons and protons. Every single student was engaged in the learning.”

CTO Gilani said that BPS’s journey with such mixed reality technology is just the beginning. “As we expand mixed reality learning opportunities throughout the district, we have the opportunity to widen the horizons for all of our students. These hands-on, interactive learning opportunities help them grasp difficult concepts, delve more deeply into what they are learning, and open their eyes to career and life possibilities that they might never have considered.”

Joe Parlier is the senior director of education solutions at zSpace, a Silicon Valley-based mixed reality education technology provider. With a background as an educator and school administrator, Parlier is integral to the zSpace product strategy and ensuring products meet customer expectations.

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