On Nov. 7, students in Nicole Colburn's fourth-grade classroom at J.C. Sommer Elementary School traveled to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and ancient Native American sites near Cincinnati and Dayton.

And they didn't leave their classroom.

The students were using virtual-reality headsets from one of two kits owned by the South-Western City School District.

This is the second year the district has used the kits.

"It (virtual reality) makes for a more authentic learning experience than you can have reading about something in a book or even viewing a picture online," said David Hampson, the district's technology liaison.

"When they put these headsets on and go on a tour, the students are as close to being there without actually being at the site," he said.

The experience is so real that students can forget they are in their classroom, Hampson said.

"I love watching the students get so immersed in their tour that they start reaching out and trying to touch what they're seeing," he said. "It's just that real."

"I went to a kindergarten class that was learning about biodiversity and different ecosystems," Hampson said. "We used the headsets to take the students on a shark expedition. But this wasn't just looking at static pictures of sharks. With their headsets on, the students were in a cage, underwater, and the sharks were coming toward them.

Although Hampson and the students' teacher kept telling the students the sharks weren't real, it didn't change the mostly delighted, and in a couple of case frightened, reactions the students had as the sharks swam toward them in their virtual cages.

"You can't help but smile when you see that kind of reaction," he said.

The virtual-reality kits offer access to an extensive list of tours, Hampson said.

The tours can be tailored to fit specific lessons in a classroom, he said.

"With kindergarten students, it's a very basic tour of a place, but with high school students, we can take them into much more complex places, even within the structure of a cell," Hampson said.

Students can use the devices to create their own tours by researching and finding images and video of a place.

"They can share the tours they create with each other," Hampson said. "It gives them more of a connection to the research they're doing."

The virtual-reality kits are popular with teachers, he said.

"We have a calendar set up (for use of the kits) and it's pretty much full until we get to spring break," Hampson said.

The tour her students took on Nov. 7 related to two units of study, Colburn said.

Students are reading "Number the Stars," a work of historical fiction that tells about a Jewish family's escape from Copenhagen, Denmark, during World War II as part of a reading and writing unit, she said.

The class has been studying Native American culture and went on an actual field trip to the Hopewell Indian Mound in Chillicothe.

Comparing that visit, Colburn said she noticed students engaging with their virtual field trip.

"Using virtual realty helps boost the excitement of learning," she said. "Kids are at home using technology. It's how they learn."

It's important to offer students access to technology in the classroom as state assessments move to online testing, Colburn said.

"And taking a tour with a virtual-reality device is just more fun than listening to your teacher stand in front of the class and talk about a place," she said. "It's much more interactive."

A few of Colburn's students talked about the virtual-reality tours they took.

"At first everyone was kind of having fun with the headsets, but then you started realizing where you were, and it made you feel sad," Braden Rodriguez said of experiencing the concentration camp. "It was amazing, because you really felt like you were there."

"I kept reaching out, trying to touch the things I was seeing," Raegan Bradhurst said. "I knew about the concentration camps, but I don't think I really understood what people went through there until I was seeing the gas chambers up close."

Matthew Hursey said the details were vivid.

"You'd be looking and you'd notice little things you didn't see at first," he said. "It's way more realistic than just looking at a regular picture."

"I just find it so satisfying that we can use our virtual-reality kits to bring the world to our students," Hampson said. "We're no longer confined to the borders of our classrooms."

The districts has two virtual-reality kits, each with a different system.

One kit has 16 ClassVR units, which are made of plastic. These devices were purchased using district funds set aside for technology.

Ten cardboard Google Expeditions headsets were purchased through a grant from the South-Western Educational Foundation, Hampson said.

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