Forget the formaldehyde.

Instead of sinking a scalpel into a preserved frog or small shark during biology class, School District 49 students now can dissect animals by clicking an oversized stylus on an augmented reality image that seems to come to life in 3D.

A $1 million Department of Defense Education Activity grant paid for retired school bus No. 37 to be converted into a mobile classroom featuring zSpace virtual technology.

The San Jose, Calif.-based company’s equipment and curriculum allow students to interact with simulated objects in virtual environments as if they are real.

“This is rare, definitely unique,” Dee Dickson, customer success manager for zSpace, said Friday at a ribbon-cutting for D-49’s new Expeditions bus.

“We’re breaking the screen barrier and coming into the z-plane.”

D-49, the region’s third-largest school district with about 22,500 students, is the first in the state to have such a classroom and one of a few in the nation.

It took a year for D-49 to strip and reconfigure the old bus into a state-of-the-art virtual learning lab that will move from school to school.

The bus has 14 stations, where elementary and middle school students will work in pairs on about 2,000 models in science, technology, engineering, arts and math, known as STEAM subjects.

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Harlow Motta, second-grader at Springs Ranch Elementary, steps out of the bus after checking out the zSpace virtual technology inside D-49’s new Expeditions bus in preparation for the ribbon-cutting in Colorado Springs on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. Motta contributed a design of a turtle she sketched for the side of the bus.

The district’s three traditional high schools have either laptops or a designated classroom with the same capabilities.

Students wear 3D glasses, pick up objects on the screen with the stylus and move them backward, forward, up, down and all around.

Want to look at the elements of a beating heart? Or examine the specifics of the Eiffel Tower? What about seeing how an internal combustion engine works?

“You could pull apart the engine piece by piece virtually,” said D-49 spokesman David Nancarrow.

The program enables students to do things in virtual reality that they can’t do in the classroom, Dickson said.

“Things that are dangerous, impossible, counterproductive or expensive can instantly be done with a click of a button,” she said.

The bus is outfitted with whiteboards above the computer banks, storage areas, protective equipment guards for when the bus is moving, a large overhead screen at the back and 3D printers.

“Mind-boggling” is how some students have described the setup.

“I haven’t ever seen anything like it,” said 13-year-old Gavin Adams, an eighth-grader at Falcon Middle School. “I really like the 3D effect — it looks fun.”

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The new zSpace virtual technology D-49’s Expeditions bus during the ribbon-cutting at the administration building in Colorado Springs on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. D-49 is the first in the state to have the new zSpace bus virtual learning lab featuring 14 stations. A $1 million Department of Defense Education Activity grant paid for retired school bus No. 37 to be converted into a mobile classroom featuring zSpace virtual technology.

Engaging students in what they’re learning is one of the goals, said D-49 Chief Education Officer Peter Hilts.

“This is a place where our students across the district will be prepared for the future,” he said.

Gavin was one of four D-49 students whose artwork was chosen to be replicated on the side of the bus. He drew special letters spelling out the word STEAM, with the S representing the sign for sulfur, for example. Student artwork of a pterodactyl, a turtle and a bridge also decorate the bus.

Teachers are being trained on the programs, and students from Vista Ridge High School will learn the system and help teachers with activities, said Assistant Principal Jason Dalee.

“This concept is phenomenal,” he said. “It allows true differentiation of the curriculum,” which will help students of all academic abilities interact with the material in a way they haven’t before.

D-49 has received three grants totaling $3.5 million from the Department of Defense Education Activity, which benefit districts that have high concentrations of students connected to active-duty military and DoD-contractor families. Nearly one-fifth of D-49’s enrollment are in those categories, Nancarrow said.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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