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PORTAGE — Willowcreek Middle School sixth-graders went to Greece on Tuesday and didn't leave their classrooms.

The youngsters and their teachers were trained in the newest technology being introduced districtwide in Portage Township Schools, virtual reality education.

Mike DePasquale, director of innovative learning, said the district initially wanted to introduce virtual learning using Google Cardboard. However, not all students own the appropriate devices to make it work.

Instead, the district has purchased 12 virtual reality kits, each including 30 devices, goggles and rapid charging systems for use at every grade level in every building of the district. The kits cost about $7,500 each and were purchased through the common school loan fund.

"So many of our students are not able to travel. This is a virtual field trip to allow them to get a better understanding of the world around them," DePasquale said. "They can have an authentic experience without traveling."

Sixth-graders at Fegely Middle School, along with staff, were trained on the devices last week. Willowcreek students got their turn this week. Eventually there will be a kit at each of the schools and the program will be launched districtwide in January.

With the use of Google Expeditions, DePasquale said, there are hundreds of virtual reality scenes. Teachers can lead students through each scene, giving lessons and asking questions.

As students oohed and ahhed through the tour of Greece on Tuesday, DePasquale stopped at each scene, giving lessons and asking about Greece's history, culture and geography. Sixth-graders study ancient Greece, so they "toured" the Acropolis, the Parthenon, Greek city and village life as well as ancient ruins and mountaintops during the 55-minute-long class.

"It just opens up so many more avenues for them to explore," said teacher Rich Lynch. "They are just so much more engaged."

"You get to learn and experience things, and get to see the things that you don't see in the classroom," said student Taniya Turner.

The VR experience, DePasquale said, will be used at all grade levels.

Students will be able to virtually tour zoos before going on a field trip, explore shipwrecks or coral reefs under the sea, hike through a rain forest or visit other communities, states and countries, DePasquale said, depending on the curriculum of each grade.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.