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A new dimension: Cass Lake-Bena’s 3-D computers aid science instruction

Cass Lake-Bena High School teacher Joe Cherney, right, helps students Elias Miranda, left, and Tianna White work with the zSpace lab program on Thursday. The program uses “augmented reality" to help students visualize science concepts in 3-D. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)

CASS LAKE—Cass Lake-Bena middle and high school students have a futuristic new way to learn this year.

School district leaders bought last summer several "zSpace" computers, which students can use to manipulate three-dimensional "augmented reality" models of atoms, human hearts, motors, circuits and more to accentuate their math or science lessons.

The middle school and high school each got a batch of the new computers, and staff there might buy a third for the district's elementary school. Each zSpace computer looks like a beefed-up tablet attached to a keyboard and stylus. Pairs of students use special glasses and the stylus to navigate through on-screen lessons that might ask them to inspect 3-D models of, say, an atom to better understand its orbitals, which can follow several different paths and be tough to show on a two-dimensional whiteboard.

"It's hard to teach because it's hard to draw," said Joe Cherney, a chemistry and physics teacher at the high school, as Pioneer staff fiddled with a bulbous three-dimensional model of an Osmium atom on one of the zSpace terminals. Nearby, pairs of Cass Lake-Bena juniors used theirs to explore the periodic table and valence electrons. "But now they have something they can visualize—what it might look like in the electron cloud."

Beyond that, students in an engineering or automotive class could use the labs to diagnose and repair a malfunction in a virtual motor or circuit. Or they could pick their way through a beating virtual heart, removing and replacing sections to peer deeper inside.

Cherney said his students use the new technology about once a week to augment more commonplace teaching methods in his regular classroom.

"Having that motor skill and using that, manipulating that motion, helps trigger other things in the brain to help them remember this stuff and analyze it," Cherney said. "It's another tool to help with the retention of the material."

The district also bought new science curriculum for this school year, and Superintendent Rochelle Johnson was at the front of the push to buy the new labs, which she said cost about $60,000 each.

"We think this is the future," Johnson said.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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