As young Benedict Day School students stand surrounded by towering trees, they feel and hear the sounds of the forest all around them. Cool moss grows beneath their feet and chirping birds fly overhead in a vivid blue sky. An old jeep sits off to the left of the encampment they’ve discovered. And nestled in a sound sleep just feet in front of them is an Apatosaurus, a sauropod which became extinct millions of years ago.
As this gentle giant senses the children’s presence, he wakes and feels the need to come over and inspect these pint-sized students who are seemingly unafraid by his size and the half-hearted roar he bellows. He’s not scary enough to send the students running. As he gets up in their faces, they see his whiskers and his nostrils flare and look him eye to eye as he turns his head to observe them.
Sensing they are harmless, he turns to go back to his nap, but not before his long powerful leathery tail slashes around, causing students to duck to avoid being smacked.
The students’ up close and personal experience with the Apatosaurus, which took place on their Hwy. 589 north campus, is made possible through the school’s new virtual reality classroom, which was built this past summer.
The lab is the creation of new headmaster Adam Man gana, who is in his first year leading the school, which is home to about 186 students. Previously at Jackson Preparatory School in Jackson for four years, Mangana created a virtual reality classroom there about two years ago.
The BDS virtual reality classroom shares space with the library. Its walls are adorned with different quotes. Manganja explains that the quotes placed on colorful boards around the room are very intentional.
“One of my favorites is from St. Augustine, “The words printed here are concepts, you must come through the experiences.”
The VR classroom has been intentionally juxtaposed with the library, which Mangana says doesn’t supplant reading, but rather enhances it.
Mangana’s Capstone project at Vanderbilt was on virtual reality. When he’s not running the school, Mangana also serves as the teacher or “new-age librarian for the VR classes, until he can get his teachers trained.
Every student, K-8, gets exposure to the VR classroom.
The VR classroom is used as a way to enhance stories students are already learning. For the younger students, VR lessons such as the paleontology lesson are highly engaging and help the young students learn a variety of things about the dinosaurs, while also teaching a little biology.
“They can think about the scale, how tall the Apatosaurus is and what makes it a sauropod,” he said. A sauropod is a dinosaur with a long neck, four legs, tiny head with a massive body and long tail.
This particular unit helps the younger students learn about different dinosaurs. One part of their studies asks them to compare and contrast a herbivore and a carnivore.
“We’re able to juxtapose the temperament, comparing herbivores and carnivores, the aggressive hunters and other words that come up and draw deeper connections.”
According to Mangana, the goals of the lab are to curate and create the very best content for learning.
One particular VR lesson for older students studying anatomy and physiology is looking at natural occurring diseases in the lungs versus diseases that humans cause.
“It encourages kids not to vape or smoke,” Mangana said.
The interactive takes students inside the lungs where they see the different layers and how airflow works, while also witnessing what healthy lungs look like as opposed to those of a smoker and the effect of COPD on the lungs or the lungs of someone who suffers from asthma.
“It really makes learning relevant to kids,” he said, “as well as captivating and engaging while making learning more efficient.
“The 8th-grade class is actually building VR content, learning coding and developing VR applications.”
Mangana considers it an incredible experience.
There is VR instruction for every academic program – math, science, art, history.
The “I Am A Man” virtual reality experience takes students back in 1968 Memphis, Tenn., and gives them the perspective of sanitation workers during the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
“So now kids who are not connected to MLK can understand why we have a holiday,” Mangana said.
The Jigspace experience lets students see the layers of the earth when studying geology. In this program they can take the earth apart and put it back together. This program helps the little kids discover the difference between convergent boundaries and transform boundaries. It also teaches the different between how earthquakes or mountains form.
“These are really ways for us that extend thinking,” Mangana said, “having them think at a much deeper level rather than having them memorize.”
The classroom can accommodate up to 32 kids with 16 headsets.
And how unique is this virtual reality classroom?
Mangana believes Benedict Day School is the only school in the southeast who has such.
“I’ve been all over this country – China, LA, New York, Abu Dhabi and there’s not a school in any of those that’s doing what we are doing,” he said. “I love the fact that our kids are doing this in Sumrall. I think that’s really fascinating; that we are doing it in an unlikely geography. We are ahead in the country in this work.”
The lab cost under $30,000 to build as opposed to the one at Jackson Prep, which was in excess of $100,000. “Technology has gotten better and cheaper in the last two years,” he said.
And this new lab has more capacity. “These are supercomputers and Southern Miss doesn’t have these.
“These day if you go into a school you’re going to find a computer,” he said. “Thirty years ago this would have been a different story. But this is happening right now in Sumrall. This may be the first one-to-one VR school in the world. Being a one-to-one school would allow students to be able to work on projects at home or in other words – homework. All students enrolled at BDS are required to have an Ipad or Ipad-mini, which would allow the homework to be possible.
“It just depends on the curriculum, the board and what they decide to do. We’re not just spending money to spend money.”
Kindergarten students visit the VR classroom once a week and 8th graders every day.
“This isn’t an old-school library,” said Mangana. “This is like coming to a virtual library. It’s all intentional. We didn’t just build an arcade in the middle of the school, although with the amount of computing we have we can pretty much do whatever we want.
What Mangana loves about VR is that they are engaging a much more varied type of learner.
“Kids are already exposed to a lot of learning applications and software from a very young age,” he said. “They aren’t afraid of software. they learn to treat it with respect and not be distracted by a lot of foolishness.”
VR makes class time interesting and unique.
“I’m really proud Mississippi has it, but I’m more proud that Hattiesburg/Sumrall has it.