With the help of a simulator, Shaler students can now explore outer space


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Shaler Area fifth-grader Trapper Crain was the captain of a recent mission back in time in an underwater vehicle with a crew of 15 classmates who attempted to intervene in the fatal torpedo attack of the luxury ocean liner the Lusitania.

The crew battled alien forces, some in the form of U-boats, others resembling ocean creatures such as giant squids. Some of the alien forces were attempting to alter the course of history by blocking the attack, which led to the sinking of the Lusitania, resulting in the loss of nearly 1,200 lives and prompting the United States to enter World War I.

The students took their virtual trip back in time via the Dream Flight Adventures classroom simulator, which was recently created at Shaler Area Elementary School with an $80,000 grant from the Grable Foundation.

While the Shaler crew was busy fighting the external forces under the virtual ocean, it was experiencing an internal battle as well. Crew members wavered between trying to save the lives of those aboard the Lusitania by blocking its attack, or allowing history to repeat and maintain itself. They knew from previous classroom discussions that if the ship did not sink, the U.S. may not have entered World War I and the course of history could be completely different.

In the end, Trapper made a decision based solely on the safety of his crew. He called for a retreat from the enemies because it was too risky for his ship to venture past them. But it meant that the Lusitania sunk once again just as it had May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland.

Trapper's classmate Isabella James said when the group embarked on the Lusitania mission it planned to allow the ship to sink and preserve history. "But then we had second thoughts," she said.

But as the students tried to intervene, a giant squid threatened. "We called the captain and he said, 'Just get away from the squid,' " said Isabella, a pilot on the mission.

"We left history as it should be," said Michael Bly, her classmate and co-pilot.

The simulator is the brainchild of Gary Gardiner of Regent Square, who has had the idea of creating a simulator for students since he was young and attended a space camp in Utah that provided a similar experience. Mr. Gardiner produced the software used by the simulator and he presented the idea at a meeting of school district officials at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit last year.

His idea caught the fancy of Kara Eckert, assistant to the superintendent in the Shaler Area School District. Mr. Gardiner and Ms. Eckert made a grant proposal to the Grable Foundation and when the money came through, they worked with Michael Penn, a teacher for the gifted and talented program at Shaler Elementary, on creating adventures based on the district's curriculum. They also worked with district carpenter Robert Gasowski on the physical construction of the simulator.

The Shaler simulator is the first to be built based on Mr. Gardiner's design. It is housed in a former classroom that has been divided into three areas, the largest of which is the simulator. There is also a "staging area" outside of the simulator where students sit and listen to directions before a mission and a small control area behind the simulator where Mr. Penn watches the students via cameras as they perform their duties and creates reactions to some of the decisions they make.

The missions use skills and concepts from across the curriculum including social studies, history, language arts, math and science, Mr. Penn said.

But they also teach nonacademic skills such as teamwork, decision-making and higher-order thinking skills and prompt discussions on such topics as political ideology and ethics. Mr. Penn said he and Mr. Gardiner are at work on other missions based on the district's curriculum.

While Shaler Area Elementary School houses students in grades 4-6, plans call for the simulator to be used by other grade levels, including high school. The adventures will be modified to use grade-level math and science and other course material, Mr. Penn said.

Inside the simulator, where it is usually dark during the missions, the adventure is projected on a large screen in front. There are 16 stations with various jobs attached. Students perform their duties on iPads that are embedded in the station desk. They study and practice the responsibilities of each station before participating in missions. For each mission, students construct a hypothesis, test it during the experiment and then analyze the results.

In addition to the Lusitania mission, three other adventures are available. The "Pandemic" adventure involves a delegate who falls seriously ill while attending peace negotiations between two civilizations that have been separated for hundreds of years. In the simulator, students "shrink" their vessel to a size small enough to enter the blood stream, which requires knowledge of fractions.

"They have to understand the proportions, but -- more than understand -- they have to apply the principle," Mr. Penn said.

Once the vessel is inside the body, it travels through its systems to search for the disease, develop a cure and stop the plague before it spreads. The goal of the mission is to save lives and to remove any doubt between the two civilizations about the possibility of germ warfare.

The "Succession" adventure has the students involved in rescuing an oracle who is responsible for naming a new king and restoring order to her fictitious homeland, and the "Insurrection" mission uses an interstellar empire and a fight over algae biofuels to reflect a battle similar to the American Revolution.

"I've learned a lot about eye-hand coordination and about angles and it's the first time I've used an iPad at school," said Mia Fantozzi, 11.

Classmate Mara Gillespie, also 11, wasn't as specific about what she learned during the mission, but she wasn't lacking enthusiasm for the simulator. "It's really cool," she said.

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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