Virtual Reality Teaches History In Third Grade

By William Fallon

Ever since the beginning of Collegiate’s STEAM program, STEAM Coordinator and engineering and robotics teacher Daniel Bartels has been working on inserting virtual reality (VR) into teaching at Collegiate and increasing technology in the learning curriculum. Third grade classes have recently started to study Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and the voyages and lives of Virginia’s first settlers. I found this as great opportunity to incorporate VR into learning and chose it to be my project in the Engineering and Robotics class. My goal was to create a 3D model of the Susan Constant, one of the three ships that first brought colonists to Virginia from England in 1607, and create a virtual reality simulation of the vessel traveling the Atlantic and mapping Virginia.

Third graders try the simulation. Photo credit: William Fallon.

After finding the ship’s dimensions, I tried creating a CAD (computer-aided design, or drafting) model of the ship; however, to complete this model, it would take a long time and multiple people. When Bartels and I realized that we could not finish by the end of the semester, we decided to buy a model off of the internet. We wanted to create the most realistic simulation possible for the students. However, after lots of research, we were unable to find one online. Instead, we bought a 3D model of the Golden Hind, a ship captained by Sir Francis Drake. It was a discovery-style ship, the same as the Godspeed, Susan Constant, and Discovery, but built a few years earlier.

We used a video game design program called Unity to create the simulation. The purchased 3D model of the Golden Hind was a “wired mesh” model which contained no rigid model or color. Because it was primarily an outline, I had to paint the entire ship and make it stable. After painting the boat, we inserted colliders, objects that create a physical surface for the user to stand on. We also created an interactive sky, one that could change the weather and display excellent colors and realism. We created multiple scenes, one for a sunny day and one presenting a storm, with rain and lightning. After creating the sky, we created an infinite ocean; we were able to adjust the motion of the waves and color of the water, as well as add reflections from the sky.

A screenshot from the simulation. Image credit: William Fallon.

One of the main things we wanted to accomplish with this project, by request of second-grade teacher Elizabeth Marchant’s class, was to make the ship rock with the waves, calmly for a sunny day and in rough water for storms. We had to adjust the model considerably and add multiple buoyancy objects to make it float with the rhythm of the waves. Programming the boat to be buoyant took many attempts and experimentations, but, in the end, we were able to create a marvelous looking ship.

On Thursday, December 7, we set up five computers running the program in the Lower School engineering room in Burke Hall. During the day, third grade classes visited the classroom and tried out the simulation. Two of the five computers were non-VR run, but the other three were simulated in VR, each displaying a different scene. When Wright (‘27) put on the Oculus headset for the first time, he screamed “Woah! This is awesome!”  He said he hoped that the students could do more of this type of VR activity in the future. Another third grader said, “This is so good, I’d like to play with this all the time.”

A third grader exploring the simulation. Photo credit: William Fallon.

Not only do the kids love this method of learning, the teachers do too. Third grade teacher Derek Murray said, “Getting to see what this ship looks like out on the ocean is great. I think it’s a big thing that we miss when we go to the site. The ship is docked in bay, and it’s not going anywhere, but this gives us that opportunity to understand what it would have been like for the settlers on their voyage.” Declan (‘27) said that the simulation is “Great and could be even better if one day we were able to use this and create a whole movie and game.” He hopes that one day he would have the ability to add even more to the simulation in the future, “like shooting the cannons” or “steering the ship” or “go to sleep in the beds below deck and throw up in the slop buckets!” Third grade teacher Lauren Brown said, “The kids loved it. What a fun way to experience the hardships on board the ships headed to Virginia.”

About the author

William is a Junior at Collegiate.