A Real-Life Magic School Bus Prepares Today’s Students for Tomorrow

Part simulator, part video game, part classroom, new immersive learning environments teach students to work together to solve complex problems.

Imagine what it would be like to take adventures back in time, through space, or under the sea—in sixth grade? This might seem pretty inconceivable for some of us, at least outside the pages of a good book, but it is now a regular classroom reality for students at Shaler Area Elementary School in Glenshaw, just outside of Pittsburgh. Thanks to an $80,000 grant from The Grable Foundation, Shaler educators were able to partner with Dream Flight Adventures, a creative education technology firm, to design a new interactive learning environment called the IKS Titan.

The Titan has been described as a “real-life ‘Magic School Bus,’” except instead of Ms. Frizzle leading adventures, it’s the students themselves. “Think of it as part simulator, part video game, part classroom,” said Dream Flight Adventures Director Gary Gardiner. “All these elements combine to create an immersive learning environment that challenges students to use all of their right- and left-brain skills, plus lots of team work, to solve complex problems.”

The simulator, equipped with embedded iPads for each student to control, is specifically designed to build students’ interest in STEM subjects, and to help hone 21st-century skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving. Creativity and art are also elements of the vessel’s curriculum, which “sends” students on a variety of missions designed by the school’s very own teachers. Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mary Niederberger cited other nonacademic subjects addressed on the missions, including decision-making and higher-order thinking skills, which “prompt discussions on such topics as political ideology and ethics.”

Dian Schaffhauser explained the curriculum in a recent blog post for Technological Horizons in Education Journal. “The missions involve history, literature, and the humanities along with STEM concepts, to explore outer space, undersea voyages, or trips to the past,” she said. “Each student will play a role: captain, first officer, pilot, biologist, physicist, engineer, hacker, or one of seven other stations.”

Groups of four to 16 students can use the simulator at a time. It projects the adventure on a large screen, and students have been instructed to study and practice each station’s role and associated responsibilities before embarking on one of the missions. For example, the Captain is responsible for making all command decisions and ensuring that the mission is completed successfully, while the the Physicist is responsible for allocating the ship’s power supply, and the Doctor must diagnose and treat illness among the crew. Students also design a hypothesis before each mission, and to analyze the results after testing it on the mission.

The missions are varied in subject and can be modified for each grade level by Shaler’s teachers. One mission, for example, has students using fractions and proportions to shrink the vessel and send it through the human bloodstream to fight a contagious disease. To make the mission more complicated, the person in danger is a delegate sent to negotiate a peace treaty between battling civilizations.

Photo: Ben FilioNiederberger describes the “Pandemic” mission in more depth. “Once the vessel is inside the body, it travels through its systems to search for the disease, develop a cure and stop the plague before it spreads,” she writes. “The goal of the mission is to save lives and to remove any doubt between the two civilizations about the possibility of germ warfare.”

This is clearly moving beyond the ordinary classroom of old. And more importantly, it skillfully fuses the “three Rs” with what some are calling the four Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation. But even beyond the four Cs is the concept of “deeper learning,” the subject of a recent report by the National Academies—the ability to transfer what you learn in one setting to another setting, and specifically to know when, how, and why to apply that understanding to answer further questions and solve problems. It’s not just assembling facts, but being able to make the connections from one unrelated idea to another that will help ensure that children will find their niche in this rapidly changing, highly competitive new economy. It is also the recipe for great innovators.

Although research is lacking on how to exactly teach this deeper learning and ensure that kids can make that transfer of knowledge, it seems that projects like the IKS Titan are worth more serious consideration.

Indeed, Shaler isn’t the only school testing out these new immersive tools. Oregon Middle School teacher Heidi Pankratz, profiled in this Mind/Shift piece, used an augmented reality and interactive storytelling (ARIS) tool to create an interactive program in which her students use their phones to identify a virus that is harming the animals at their local zoo. These teaching tools integrate real-world experiences with virtual information, thanks to technology such as GPS and QR codes. The games can “capture geo-tagged audio recordings, for example, or photos and videos that student players can view when they reach a particular place or meet a particular character.”

Others at the Playmaker School in California and Quest to Learn in New York City and Chicago are also using immersive educational technology, focusing more closely on discovery and learning through games and experiences that emulate what students will one day face in the real world.

Published March 28, 2013