South Side High School on cutting edge of evolving classroom practices, thanks in part to the RVC Ed

Watching a human heart beat up close is an experience reserved for cardiovascular surgeons, and to hold one in your hand sounds like something out of an Edgar Allan Poe poem. Yet at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, students can virtually grab a beating heart from a screen and pull it toward them, examining it from all angles, as vibrations — simulating blood pumping to vital organs — pulse through a stylus and into their hand.“If you put your face slowly into the heart,” teacher Chris D’Ambrosio said, smiling, “you’ll see the inside.”

Chris D’Ambrosio, a science teacher at South Side High School, helped student Emma Garrett use one of the district’s zSpace computers to analyze and label parts of the human body’s circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems. BEN STRACK/HERALD

Exploring in a new way

Analyzing a human heart is just one of the many experiences possible in the Rockville Centre School District’s zSpace lab, which houses 12 computers that combine virtual and augmented reality. With special glasses, students are able to immerse themselves in 3-D, pre-made or teacher-created programs, which give viewers perspectives that they can’t experience in real life.

The students are employing cutting-edge technology. This, educators say, is the future of the 21st century classroom. “You can pull things out, turn them around,” explained D’Ambrosio, whose Living Environment students had just wrapped up a unit on the body’s circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems — more than a month of material — and now were reviewing what they had learned. “. . . If I click on ‘dissect,’ I can pull one of the lobes of the lungs and take a look at the trachea.”

Students from various Living Environment classes gathered in the lab last month, where they were tasked with analyzing and labeling the various anatomical systems and their parts. Once they were finished, the students could download the lesson using eBackpack, an internet-based application, and send it to their teacher, who could then review their answers and address what the students got right and wrong during the next class.

“I thought it was very cool, and I think it’s easier to learn about the systems,” freshman Elio Fontanez said after using the zSpace technology for the first time. “… People would want to do this more. I’d rather do this than stare at a board for 40 minutes.”

Users can virtually grab a beating heart out of the zSpace screen. BEN STRACK/HERALD

The zSpace virtual reality computers were introduced to the district last year as part of a three-year grant from the Rockville Centre Education Foundation, which earmarked $28,000 for the technology this year alone. A total of $6,000 was also used to purchase a ShopBot Indexer, which will allow students to sculpt 3-D models using zSpace programming, according to Audra Cerruto, president of the foundation’s executive board.

“This is where the future is going with technology,” she said. “With that comes untapped potential for utilizing a tool like this to educate our students.”

zSpace computing grabs students’ attention, D’Ambrosio said, comparing it to educational gaming. Aside from examining human hearts, a first-time user can explore the computer’s capabilities on a vibrant home screen. Students can, for example, select a butterfly to pull toward them as it flaps its wings, or a robotic arm that they can “explode” — breaking it into dozens of tiny pieces to observe its many parts — and reassemble again.

Michelle Gamache, a teaching assistant in some of South Side’s biology and chemistry classes, said that students have also dissected cells on the computers. “They’re able to see everything within context . . . because when you’re reading in a book about a cell, you just don’t understand the scale,” she explained. “When you’re seeing it on a zSpace, you’re seeing a cell within the blood, you’re seeing it within an organ, and you’re seeing exactly what we’re talking about.”

Freshmen Billy Talkin, right, and Russell McQuillan, used the zSpace computers. BEN STRACK/HERALD

Teachers were taught how to use the zSpace computers at professional development sessions in August before each of the past two school years, D’Ambrosio said, adding that he often spends his free periods experimenting with how to make lessons more interesting with the 3-D tool.

Principal John Murphy said the school’s biology and art classes have used the zSpace computers the most, and that a dozen teachers have created lessons to use with them. The district plans to expand the use of zSpace, perhaps even allowing elementary and middle school students to try it out.

“It’s really about the questions that it’s posing,” Murphy said. “. . .We envisioned it as a supplement to our instruction, which I guess it has been, but I think . . . it’s forced us to explore what the possibilities are, and that’s the real gift.”

An evolving curriculum

Through new offerings, the district is becoming an example of how classrooms are evolving in an effort to best educate today’s students.

The Rockville Centre Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed in 1991 with board members who