Mya Holt drove the yellow vehicle through a forest at Mount St. Helens, searching for a cabin amid the digital trees on the three monitors in front of her.
"It may be easier to see if you're in the air," said Chesapeake High senior Turrel David, prompting Holt to press a button on the unfamiliar joystick and transform the vehicle into an aircraft that soared above the mountainous computer-generated landscape.
"Oh, there it is," she said a few seconds later, pointing to a dark, distant structure.
Holt, a junior, and several of her peers were spending their first day back at the Essex school Monday on a test drive - and, at times, test flight and boat ride - through a training simulation in a new virtual classroom, believed to be an original program.
The virtual laboratory, which cost the Baltimore County school system about $2 million, is designed to bring real-world situations to students through 3-D simulations and problem-solving scenarios that could help develop skills that future employers might expect.
This school year, students will use the lab in geometry and environmental science courses; school officials say they will eventually expand to other subjects. In an environmental science exercise with an accurately re-created Mount St. Helens, for example, students act as investigators to find out what caused a fish kill at Spirit Lake.
Praise from Hairston
"We need to teach our children where they are, not where we were," said Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, standing in the high-tech room where 10 72-inch screens line opposite walls. "What better way to do that than to put them in a real-life situation? ... This is a classic example of education in the future."
The technology allows for creating an "infinite number of scenarios," so teachers can modify the environment to suit their purposes, said David Peloff, program director for emerging technologies at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Technology in Education, one of several partners - including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and a local game developer - involved in the project. Peloff said he has yet to come across another school lab like the one at Chesapeake, an academy for science, technology, engineering and math.
The Mount St. Helens adventure "is one environment, but there's no reason you can't create a new environment that is the Chesapeake Bay, that is London, that is Mount Vesuvius," Peloff said. One goal is to have students create scenarios.
Taking cues from Hopkins lab
"We are not teaching technology," said H. Edward Parker, the school board vice president. "We are using technology to engage students in the curriculum."
The high school's laboratory consists of two rooms. One is designated for group teaching, modeled after a similar space at Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory.
The room is designed to allow for communicating remotely with professional engineers at Lockheed and Northrop, among others, said Daniel Scroggs of the school system's technology department, who managed the project. Next door are multiple stations for individual use, each equipped with three monitors and a throttle and joystick for navigation.
"We're taking somewhat of a leap here - there's not a whole lot of research that says this directly impacts achievement," Peloff said. "But we all have a hunch that it does. We're going to be doing research to try to prove that."
Still, one undeniable benefit of the classroom is that it increases teacher and student engagement, he added.
"For a long time in education, all of us have been used to the passive learner," Chesapeake Principal Maria Lowry said. "You can't be a passive learner with this."
Her students have been involved throughout the process, she said, weighing in on curriculum tied to the lab as the concept evolved. Several also participated in training for teachers during the summer.
"It's stunning," said David, 16, who participated in the teacher training. "I would never have thought that at my school, education would have gotten this far."
Junior Rachel Martinez, 16, said she believed the lab would help her generation communicate better, moving them out of the traditional classroom and into a more relaxed setting, where they can discuss what they encounter on the screen.
"Without the technology, we'd still be reading in textbooks, visualizing this stuff," Martinez said. "There's endless opportunity here."
Teachers echoed their students' enthusiasm for using the space.
"It's absolutely fantastic," said Christina Robertson, a social studies teacher who attended training last week. "I've never seen anything like this outside of movies, or maybe at Epcot" at Disney World. Robertson said she would like to use the room with her criminal justice class to do a simulation exercise that deals with finding a lost child.
Jessica Pontius, who teaches advanced-placement environmental science, said she also looked forward to such a possibility.
Students "grow up with so many video games, so much TV, that this is almost second nature," Pontius said. "They can connect to it."
Indeed, junior Brooke Evans credited Pac-Man for giving her almost immediate ease with the joystick and throttle Monday afternoon, as she tried out the program.
A visual learner, Evans said having access to such technology would help in lessons.
"I play a lot of video games at home," Evans, 16, said, while expertly weaving her vehicle through trees. "I find it amazing that we're doing it in school."