Julie Faryniarz

By: Julie Faryniarz

It was immensely rewarding and refreshing for me as the Greenwich Alliance for Education’s Executive Director, to say “yes” to funding Unbound Summer VR, a two week Virtual Reality (VR) project/job held this summer. I say “rewarding and refreshing” because participants used cutting edge technology to learn, experiment, and explore instead of what we have all been doing recently – Zoom meetings for basic communication. The project was a testing platform for Unbound Innovations – a VR Makery and Alliance Reaching out Grant recipient for 2019-2021 (Alliance investment $74,000). This grant is a prime example of what the Greenwich Alliance does best – fund innovation, expand opportunities, and inspire educators.

Let me step back to give more context about Unbound Innovations – a VR Makery at Western Middle School (WMS). Gaspare Lipari, English and ALP teacher, is the “champion” of this grant and knows that students are ready for VR. VR is a computer-simulated, 360° environment that immerses the user into real or imagined worlds, allowing a student to gain first-hand experience in virtually any realm. VR can recreate sensory experiences that reinvigorate and engage the curious learner within every student. VR technology is more accessible and attainable than ever because companies are investing in improved software and affordable hardware, while early adopters are focusing heavily on educational and collaborative applications.

During the 2019-2020 school year, the Alliance invested in the VR hardware and software needed at WMS to successfully launch the program for students. Initially, students experimented with VR in an after-school program opportunity, subsequently expanding to 8th-grade Advisor Bases. Mr. Lipari researched, pursued, and built professional partnerships with many leaders in the field, including the Yale School of Medicine’s Play4Real Lab, EdAdvance’s Skills 21, and others. I had the opportunity to visit WMS with an Alliance board member while the Play4Real Lab shared a recently developed VR game about the dangers of vaping called smokeSCREEN VR. Gaming in VR creates an interactive learning experience that is more realistic and engaging for students.

Mr. Lipari is developing and delivering augmented reality (AR) and VR professional learning sessions for WMS teachers to integrate AR/VR learning and create opportunities in their courses. With schools closing in March and distance learning suddenly taking place, Unbound Innovations took a momentary rest. Then, during a conversation with Mr. Lipari about my initial confusion and feelings of exhaustion with sitting on multiple virtual calls, we came up with an intriguing idea. Maybe VR/AR is the emerging solution for people to meet, learn and interact? Should we do a project this summer to explore this further? He thought for a moment and said, “Let me think about this and get back to you with a work plan and a proposal.” In the meantime, the Alliance was working on starting a JOBS BOARD, as part of our AVID SUCCESS initiative, for AVID students and alumni to earn money. These students and their families were greatly impacted by business closings due to COVID-19. We, like many of our community partners, were mobilizing our volunteers and expending resources to help students, families, and educators.

Submitted in early June, Mr. Gaspari’s Unbound Summer VR proposal outlined a two-week remote VR opportunity for six AVID students and alumni to be facilitated by Mr. Lipari and Michele Giorlando DeRosa, another WMS educator. The Unbound Summer VR project was posted on our JOBS BOARD and interested students were encouraged to apply.

Unbound Summer VR started in mid-July and each day, the six students met virtually with Mr. Lipari and Mrs. Giorlando DeRosa wearing Oculus headsets. They adopted Avatars they created using TiltBrush and other applications, viewed VR documentaries, immersed themselves in one-of-a-kind experiences, and then shared their perspectives using AltspaceVR as a virtual meeting and collaboration space.

Participating students ranged from 9th grade to college senior. Although such an age range might at first seem awkward, as Avatars the students felt that the age difference was insignificant, intimidation was erased, and sharing, collaborating, and learning became easy. For Ms. Giorlando Rosa and all of the students, this was their first experience with VR technology. One student commented that VR could be the “future of technology in education,” and all of them said they would look for opportunities to learn more about VR in the future, and would definitely be putting this experience on their resumes.

For Mr. Lipari, the project added to his VR educational toolbox. Sometimes an idea comes along that you just know has potential – possibilities both seen and unseen. As always, I am happy that the Greenwich Alliance for Education is able to inspire educators to grow these ideas into visions that have a powerful and lasting impact on our students and learning communities.