Newport News Public Schools (NNPS) is preparing to boost STEM education by introducing students to new, high-tech learning tools, made possible by a grant received from Newport News Shipbuilding.
The Newport News Education Foundation (NNEF), a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting Newport News Public Schools, successfully advocated on behalf of the school system and was awarded the One Community Transformation Grant in 2019. “We’re a convener of the parties to get [this] accomplished,” explains Dr. Robin Nelhuebel, president of the NNEF and system director of education for Riverside Health System, continuing, “that’s what Newport News Education Foundation is about, supporting our students by the sustained relationship with our business partners and making opportunities.”
During a February presentation, school system STEM Instructional Supervisor Tami Byron detailed progress toward two goals that Newport News Public Schools and NNEF are pursuing in the application of this grant. For students, the school system’s plan is to “create graduates who are comfortable using technology as a means to solve problems and accomplish work.” For teachers, Byron says the goal is to “acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence to seek out cutting-edge technology to create and deliver high-quality instruction.”
Now, the school system is on the verge of implementing the first phase of a plan more than 18 months in the making. This part of the program involves putting the tools of the future into the hands of students very soon.
Virtual reality technology in the form of Oculus headsets and augmented reality delivered through handheld devices called Merge Cubes paired with iPads, will definitely be in use by Newport News students by the start of next school year. It’s possible, though, that students might get their hands on some of the technology more quickly,” Byron says. “I anticipate that we could do a soft launch in the summer for the Merge Cubes.”
This is great timing. The governor urged a greater emphasis on summer school offerings to help students stay caught up with their education. Using the augmented reality (AR) technology in the summer will certainly help while also giving an opportunity to do a “soft launch,” enabling schools to identify and address unforeseen issues with the implementation of these new learning opportunities before making the materials available to the full student body when they return to school in the fall.
The new technology will give students creative and intuitive ways to learn as a part of classes, clubs or on individual projects, but the biggest benefit is that students will get hands-on experience with the equipment itself. Augmented reality and virtual reality are tools that are increasingly used in STEM careers, making it important for students to learn how to navigate these types of technology. Byron explains, “We are better preparing our students to implement technology solutions. That creates a readiness for students to be able to enter the workforce.”
Phase two of the grant application will be a two-year process, accomplished in partnership with Old Dominion University and Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC). Byron says it will “increase student awareness and understanding of the 10 digital shipbuilding areas and do it in a fun way.” Toward that end, VMASC is building a website that will feature what Byron calls “gamified simulations” that are meant to hold the interest of younger students and give them an introduction into the tools of future STEM careers in shipbuilding and beyond.
Phases one and two will not completely wipe out the $300,000 grant, however. There will be a third phase in the project, but with the second phase still two years into the future, and the rapidly developing nature of digital technology, it is still too soon to predict what phase three will entail.