Teacher Heidi Hall demonstrates a grade 2 lesson on dinosaurs to the SAD 4 school board in Piscataquis Community Elementary School’s new 360-degree virtual reality room — the “Pirate Portal” — during an Oct. 11 meeting. Credit: Stuart Hedstrom / Piscataquis Observer

GUILFORD, Maine — Instead of watching their teacher write on the whiteboard while they take notes, elementary students in Guilford can see their lessons through the only 360-degree virtual reality room in a public school in Maine.

The idea is that the four walls of the room are actually screens, similar to an IMAX theater. Students sit in special chairs — which Principal Anita Wright compared to boat cushions with backs — on the floor that can be pivoted as the kids turn to watch the images unfold along the walls. Although usually the room would be rounded, the school district retrofitted a space they already had.

The technology is furnished by a company named Igloo that brings to life such experiences as going inside the human body or meeting a dinosaur face to face. Wright said she found it during the early days of the pandemic when she was researching how to help reengage students after they returned to the school building post-remote learning.

There are other virtual reality classrooms around the country, but they are not 360-degree systems. The Piscataquis Community Elementary School learning room is only the third Igloo Immersive Space to be located in a U.S. public school, along with one in Texas and another in Ohio that was finished just two weeks before the Guilford one.

“This was a wonderful way to spend that COVID relief money because it absolutely addresses social emotional needs as virtual reality is becoming a leading therapy for anxiety and depression and because of the engagement of students the retention is quite significant in terms of learning,” Wright said.

The majority of the project was funded through an approximately $120,000 Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief grant made up of COVID-19 relief monies. The funds were earmarked for addressing social-emotional and learning issues for students coming out of the pandemic.

Teachers are already using it in their curriculums, and the SAD 4 School Board experienced it at a meeting earlier this month, Wright said.

While looking into virtual reality, she spoke with Thomas College Early Childhood Education Professor Pamela Thompson about her research on using virtual reality for STEM instruction.

Beyond STEM activities, the Pirate Portal (the name of the program) can help students with long-term information retention and self-confidence, and can be therapeutic, Wright said.

Thomas College’s Thompson has contracted with the district to allow her students to work with the elementary school staff to learn about teaching customized math lessons and other instruction in virtual reality.

The Guilford school also wants to partner with businesses to show students sights and sounds they would not see otherwise, Wright said. Instead of just hearing facts about hydro dams, they can go inside the turbine when business partners use a 360 GoPro camera to show the inner workings, she said.

“Kids could see how this learning plays out in the workplace and that they can kind of have those early connections to businesses and see what those job opportunities are,” Wright said.

The students also have access to two dozen virtual reality headsets and eight 360 GoPro cameras to supplement the experience.

The school was awarded one of only two Avantis World grants in the United States, according to the principal, who did not specify the amount. The three-year grant program will provide the school with 700 lessons that can be used with 360 GoPros, and content will be created specially for PCES.

The school has agreed to take part in a study being done by Harvard University and National Geographic because the Cambridge, Massachusetts, university is conducting research on extended reality. The research team will be led by Eileen McGivney — a PhD candidate in human development, teaching and learning and an instructor and researcher — and include Erika Woolse, a developer from National Geographic Explorer.

Wright said staff met with McGivney in August.

The principal said PCES also wants to use the Pirate Portal to establish a relationship with a sister school in Wales. She said the United Kingdom institution is located in a rural part of the country so there will be some similarities.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new teaching tool is planned for Friday, Nov. 4.