Virtual reality lab a hit at KSU Salem STEM day

Lisbon freshman Gabe Damron tries to keep his balance while experiencing a virtual reality simulation of walking on a beam atop the Sears Tower in Chicago in the Virtual Reality Lab at the Kent State University Salem campus. Also pictured is Clayton Gellatly, the IT manager at Kent State. The instructor in the classroom was Karen Guerrieri-Marr. Freshman and sophomores from Leetonia and Lisbon high schools visited the college Friday morning, interacting with campus instructors while taking part in activities dealing with math, science and technology. The STEM days continue the next two Fridays. The campus also plays host to guidance counselors from all districts for breakfast next Friday. (Salem News photos by Mary Ann Greier)

SALEM — Imagine pushing an elevator button and getting inside. The doors open seconds later to a beam jutting out into nothing but air, from the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Now imagine walking across that beam, heart beating faster, nerves fluttering, seeing the ground so far below.

Some high school students from Leetonia and Lisbon did just that Friday — all from the safety of the Kent State Salem virtual reality lab. The volunteers brave enough to take part donned goggles tethered to a computer to see the 3-D image while walking a beam about 1 inch from the floor. Fellow students could view what they were seeing on a screen on the wall.

Virtual reality was one of several activities the freshmen and sophomores experienced during their visit to the university campus during the first of three STEM days being held on successive Fridays through a program directed by the Columbiana County Educational Service Center. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

“We know we don’t have enough skilled workers to fill the jobs that are in demand in STEM fields,” CCESC Curriculum Consultant Carol Straub said.

Leetonia freshman Layla Newton prepares to perform a procedure on a mannequin with direction from Kent State Salem nursing instructor Krista Hawkins during STEM days at the campus.

Project Inspire involves a STEM grant the CCESC secured through the Ohio Department of Education for $1 million to purchase 3-D printers for all of the schools in the collaboration, fund teacher training on the technology and work with the students on career aspirations in the STEM field by visiting the colleges and looking at the possibilities. The grant also funded 3-D printing equipment for a production hub at the Columbiana County Career & Technical Center that can be used by all the schools for prototypes, big jobs with lots of parts or something requiring large volume. A teacher/hub manager is funded through the grant and the consortium of all the schools.

Participating schools include the career center, Leetonia, Lisbon, Crestview, Columbiana, East Palestine, East Liverpool, Wellsville and Beaver Local.

This is the third year of a six-year commitment with the grant. The grant was also written in partnership with Kent State University for the aspirations piece when students can interact with professors and take part in some of the hands-on learning that’s happening every day at the university.

“The kids are engaged. They’re having a good time,” Straub said.

About 100 students descended on the campus for STEM Day. Besides the virtual reality tour, they visited the nursing school labs which include the use of lifelike mannequins, the chemistry lab, radiology and horticulture. More STEM days will be held later in the year for junior high students at the East Liverpool campus and for juniors and seniors at the Salem campus.

Professor Chris Carlson of the Kent State University Salem campus horticulture program talks with Lisbon and Leetonia students about urban forestry during a visit Friday. (Salem News photo by Mary Ann Greier)

“I think it’s very good. The kids have the opportunity to see what’s available for university offerings,” KSU Salem Assistant Dean Celeste Oprean said, adding it’s especially good for kids who may be undecided about what they want to do.

The virtual reality lab is new this year, but for Oprean, the experience of working with virtual reality isn’t new although the technology is much more advanced than in the past. She became certified in virtual reality in 1983 at Appalachian State. She’s glad Kent State has the technology now, saying it needs to be here for the students, giving them a place where they can learn without being put in harm’s way in some cases.

“We just have gotten to the point where the computer power and affordability have come along,” she said.

For Star Trek fans, she described the virtual reality lab “like a holodeck.”

The simulation that the high school students experienced high above the Sears Tower is part of a sociology program studying phobias, with other simulations dealing with other experiences that scare people such as spiders and rollercoasters. The virtual reality lab can be used for training for any field and can be used by firefighters, surgeons and others to prepare for the real thing. Neurosurgeons can use the technology to prepare for an operation and can even use the actual MRI from the patient and decide how to proceed before performing the operation.

“You’re there and that’s the power of virtual reality,” she said.

Nursing students at Kent State Salem are using the technology for anatomy class, taking a human body apart and putting it back together. Oprean said they can see how the heart functions. History students can visit historical sites and geography students can see the layout of lands far away.

On Oct. 4, the campus will host a Salem Area Chamber of Commerce Community Open House to recognize the contribution of the Salem Community Foundation in helping the university to secure the virtual reality equipment and technology.