. : : What is VREP? : : .

The Virtual Reality Education Pathfinder (VREP) is an educational program that is designed for high school students to help develop a better understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM fields) by capturing student interest through the use of Virtual Reality. Students within the program are offered high school credit for their work and gain valuable study, computer, and technical reading skills to help them better succeed in the future. Additionally, students learn to work independently and collaboratively to solve challenges that are encountered as they work through different projects.

The VREP is self-directed, giving the student the freedom to decide what areas are of interest to him/her and what technologies to use. Working with peers, students complete projects, research and design their own virtual programs, and create 2D and 3D imaging that is then transferred into stereoscopic displays to create immersive virtual environments. Students and other viewers can then interact with the virtual environments, providing learning opportunities that engage today's learners.

The program is demanding and students are expected to be able to provide presentations and clearly articulate what they have learned on short notice. Students must show a willingness and desire to be independent learners and be willing to work in an environment where self-discipline and maturity are expected. Those who do not show responsibility and maturity or who do not complete their projects are removed from the program.


Project Background

Principal Rex Kozak at East Marshall High School in Iowa started an innovative virtual reality-based
educational program in 2006. Using the open source 3D modeling software Blender and virtual reality hardware donated by Mayo Clinic, he created a new course at his school that attempted to engage unmotivated students by giving them an opportunity to create cutting edge technology projects based on their own interest. Students were required to produce eight projects a year - two each quarter. One of the two projects each quarter had to serve an educational need within the school with a teacher considered as "customer". The other project focused on a topic of the student's own choosing. The course was graded but Kozak strongly relied on feedback from the students' peers and comments from parents for determining the letter grade.

Kozak's goal was to make the experience feel like a workplace in which a manager may provide guidance more on the desired form of the deliverable than on the process. With the intention of making students confident in spontaneous, stressful situations (just as at work when the boss drops by), he often demands demonstrations from students on the spur of the moment for outside visitors.

Since 2006, 28 students have been invited to take one or more semesters of the VREP program. Kozak has observed qualitative success with his students, describing several students who were on the path of dropping out and were "rescued" by VREP.

After Kozak's students demonstrated their accomplishments to the Iowa Department of Education, the Iowa Department of Economic Development (IDED), and the Iowa Business Council’s Advanced Manufacturing Research and Collaboration Cluster (AMRCC), members of the AMRCC agreed that the VREP initiative would be a boon to Iowa's industries by producing more potential employees for CAD modeling, engineering design, and related positions. Jack Harris, Director, Advanced Manufacturing Technology at Rockwell-Collins, Inc., spearheaded an effort to scale the East Marshall effort to other schools, persuading businesses throughout Iowa to donate further VR equipment and urging his company (Rockwell) to prototype a cheap, portable 3D VR system that schools might be able to afford. During the fall of 2009 eleven other Iowa districts began to use the VREP concept.

Based on initial success, VREP is expanding. Stephen Gilbert and other researchers at Iowa State University's Virtual Reality Application Center are pursuing research grants to support a thorough evaluation of VREP's educational impact and to create a VREP Implementation Guide based on participants' feedback which can be used to extend the program without reinventing the wheel. These efforts will demonstrate success quantitatively and give schools a standard model to use for using Virtual Reality to improve learning and engagement in STEM disciplines.

Students at a computer

Students working together on a computer project.

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