William Annin Middle School – Steve Isaacs

Steve Isaacs teaches Game Design and Development as well as Digital Storytelling at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He is an innovative educator, being recognized as the Outstanding Teacher of the Year by ISTE, among many other honors.

Foundry10 first began working with Steve on studying the impacts of game design, but have been supporting virtual reality in his classroom for a few years. His unique setup and has helped us learn great amounts about the potential of VR for learning, and we wanted to share his story, experiences with the technology, and advice for others who are looking to get started. The following is our interview with Steve. Below the interview, check out the video testimonials of parents, teachers and students who have tried VR with Steve!

F10: Please give us a little background on the types of classes you offer and the technology you are using.

Steve: I teach Game Design and Digital Storytelling (7th grade cycle – 6 week course that all 7th graders take) and Game Design and Development (8th grade elective – full semester). Currently, we have the Oculus Rift, SDK1 and the Comercial HTC Vive, and I hope to add the Playstation VR and other technologies as well.

F10: Do you have different goals for each of those classes?

Steve: The seventh grade cycle course is an exploratory course so I aim to introduce students to the game design process with a strong emphasis on narrative and storytelling in games.

The 8th grade course goes into more depth with coding, graphic design, sound engineering, etc. The aim there is to develop game design teams to create original games regardless of the platform / game engine the students choose to use. It is a choice / quest based course so students have opportunities to expand their learning based on a variety of learning pathways. This could include research on VR, game reviews (VR and non-VR), working on passion projects, coding, and much more.

F10: What are your larger philosphical goals or vision for VR in education?

Steve: My goal is to provide students with opportunities to create content in VR. I believe we are putting this technology in our students’ hands so early in the development process that they have a unique opportunity to learn with the rise and get quite a head start. What an amazing opportunity for career readiness and empowerment!

F10: Do you think your students have individual goals for themselves in regards to VR?

Steve: Great question. I believe that once they see what’s possible and choose to take on what’s next (i.e. content development) then yes. Some get to that point, others don’t and that is a natural part of my choice based learning environment.

F10: We’ve seen different approaches to scaffolding in VR, do you have any methods for introducing VR to your students?

Steve: As a new technology, I feel that exploration continues to be an important first step. I like to provide students with many opportunities to explore existing content and get a sense of what is possible. After that, we tend to move to software that allows for creation within VR (titles like Tilt Brush, 3dSunshine, minecraft / vivecraft, etc.) where the students are creating with the existing tools within the software. The final frontier would be to learn to use software that can allow students to create original content that could become VR experiences (i.e. Unity3d, Unreal Engine, ModBox)

F10: You have some open-ended opportunities that allow students to invest time pending their interest, how do you think that has been working with VR?

Steve: This is a great question. I am a firm believer of providing students with choice and allowing passion to drive the process. It makes me question whether content creation in VR is a big leap for students of the age that I work with or not. When it comes to playing VR games to review them, kids love to dive in and contribute that type of content. I believe it will be a much smaller group that go head first into content creation on a deeper level. I would like to see the course be offered at the high school where I think it would be more natural to bring in tools like Unity as part of the foundation.

F10: What are the benefits and/or drawbacks of this process for students working with VR?

Steve: The benefit is that students are truly choosing to learn and that intrinsic motivation is a huge driving force. The drawback is that students are being asked to take true ownership of the learning so they need to pursue the learning with far less support / guidance / direct instruction. Moving forward I could see where providing demo lessons to everyone will increase student participation as they all at least learn the basics of some of the tools in a more structured environment.

F10: Space is one of the biggest challenges in using VR in classrooms. Can you detail how you’ve organized the room and your thinking behind this use of space?

Steve: A big focus of mine over the past few years has been to create the ultimate learning space with tons of resources for kids, mounted TVs around the room, and comfortable seating areas. I wanted to create a special place for my students, somewhat akin to a startup or studio environment. Fortunately, perhaps somewhat by accident, I chose yogibo bean bag furniture for the sitting areas. Each sitting area (one in the front and one in the back of the room) have a nice rectangular shag carpet to put the bean bag furniture on. The carpet turned out to be a perfect space to define for the HTC Vive. It’s also lucky that the bean bag furniture is so easy to move that within about a minute I can remove it all to clear the space and put it all back to recreate the living room feel. Finally, it makes for a pretty reasonable rule that when someone is using the Vive everyone else should be off the carpet. Somehow we’ve defined this great space for the room scale experience!

F10: How would you improve on your layout?

Steve: In time I would like to create more open space which is challenging in a computer lab. I would like to see more versatile workspace including some tables with laptops to allow for more versatility in general. Perhaps that would also help with the Oculus Rift and eventually the PSVR.

F10: What are some of your favorite pieces of content for use in the classroom? Why?

Steve: Job Simulator – such an easy point of entry. Everyone loves it. It gives the experience of the simplicity of working with the Vive controllers in VR.

Water Bears– GREAT game that really feels intuitive in terms of the vive and the controllers – you really feel immersed in the game experience – and it’s a fun, cute game!

3dsunshine – perhaps my favorite so far – 3dsunshine allows you to build using minecraft blocks with the vive in such an intuitive manner. Sure seems more logical than using a mouse or worse yet a touch screen on the pocket edition. The game provides an opportunity to free build or to load an existing minecraft world and build and save right to the world.

theBlu – Great for the immersive VR experience – not so interactive, but great for exploration and the Wow factor!

virZoom – we purchased a virzoom bike for our classroom and the ability to ride the bike and control the different games in the virZoom arcade is awesome. Feels so real that kids often say they are afraid they will fall off the bike. There are a variety of fun games to play and the idea of exercising while in VR is revolutionary. The SDK is also provided so it is my hope that in time kids will create their own minigames or experiences that integrate the bike.

Vanishing Realms – I haven’t personally played, but I have a student who has clocked hours in the game and gets completely immersed when playing – seems like a great proof of concept for full on RPG / hack and slash games in VR>

F10: Now that you’re in your second year, is there anything that you still find challenging with VR?

Steve: It can sometimes be a challenge to get both the Vive in use and the Oculus at the same time as they technically use the same Steam account so there can be conflicts there. Not a big deal, but I find we focus on the Vive (maybe because the Oculus with the SDK can be finicky with connecting to certain software). Also still trying to overcome the hump of truly getting kids involved in content creation but now that there is more software that allows you to create right in VR I think we will move further in that direction.

F10: Looking forward, is there anything that you’d like to develop more in your curriculum or with your students? Anything else you’d like them to be exposed to?

Steve: As I mentioned previously, I think more direct instruction or experiences with professionals demo-ing products for the students to get them started would be great.

F10: Do you have any final pieces of advice for other educators or students that are looking to get involved in VR?

Steve: DIVE in. Create a culture in class where students understand that they will all get a chance. Once students start to see that they can continue working on other projects without being distracted because when they get a turn they will get a full experience. Don’t try to limit experiences to 2 – 5 minutes to get everyone in. It’s much better to allow students to have an authentic experience.

F10: And to end it all, how can people find you, Steve?

Steve: The best way is via Twitter, I am @mr_isaacs. You can follow my blog: Games and Learning. And, you can email me at stevei2071@gmail.com.

We would like to thank Steve for taking the time to talk with us. If you are interested in being a part of this program, please email us at info@foundry10.org!

Check out the video playlist below to see more of the work Steve has done with VR, students and teachers.