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To Infinity and Beyond: An Infinity Learning Space in Valencia, Venezuela

By Todd Lichtenwalter
To Infinity and Beyond: An Infinity Learning Space in Valencia, Venezuela

“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” —Albert Einstein Some years ago, my director Stephen Sibley and I were discussing how our school, Colegio Internacional de Carabobo, might replace the excellent yearly field trips to Hato Pinero and Morrocoy that we were no longer able to offer students because of the increased insecurity within Venezuela. I had recently read the book From Campfires to Holodecks by David Thornburgh, which reaffirmed and expanded ideas I had in mind for some years for creating an adventure learning space. From a discussion about the book, we got the ball rolling with the idea to create Star Trek-themed team project-based learning (PBL) adventures focused on promoting interdisciplinary collaboration among teachers and the practice of 21st-Century Learning Skills and Systems Thinking by the students. Infinity learning spaces An Infinity Learning Space (ILS) is a place of immersion where applied learning is practiced in numerous ways. Flexible in architecture and furnishings (e.g., all furniture has wheels), it serves as an unlimited canvas upon which any pedagogy, curriculum, or technology can be practiced throughout the year because it is not defined by the limits of any one subject matter. Rather, it is a space where teachers are encouraged to collaborate in designing interdisciplinary lessons in which students practice any number of subjects, a place that allows what has traditionally been cordoned off into separate spaces and curriculums to be interwoven. The makerspace, computer lab, theater, and science lab are now woven together by narrative-driven challenges and/or explorations. Here, students assume roles in cross-functional teams to solve real-world problems or their parallels, through simulations in analog, digital, and virtual domains. Cosmos, galaxies, and star systems The ILS framework (Fig.1) begins with the Cosmos canvas, comprised of Galaxies. A Galaxy is a collection of Systems used in the programming of an ILS. Systems are the pedagogies and content areas that shape the overall structure of a Galaxy. A single ILS can use more than one Galaxy over the course of a year(s), and schools can share Galaxy ideas, including lessons, curriculum, and innovations. Galaxies can also share common systems. For example, a Galaxy emphasizing music, art, and digital design and another emphasizing science and social studies may have in common the practices of 21st-Century Learning Skills and Applied Technology. Figure 1 (above) represents the first Galaxy our school has designed. It rests upon three areas of cognition that are intertwined when applied in the real world: Problem Solving, Systems Thinking, and 21st-Century Skills. Immersion-based learning is the framework in which students apply and improve their abilities and understandings in these three areas by putting students into the cognitive space of facing real-world-type challenges or their parallels. Games and Simulations are our Spiral Arm mediums, and Narrative is the foundational base upon which the System rotates. At our ILS, learning experiences include a variety of simulations, including analog board games (e.g, the World Peace Game), digital games (e.g., Minecraft), simulators (e.g., Dream Flight Adventures and Star Trek Bridge Crew VR), and Virtual Reality (Steam, Viveport, and Oculus Store apps). In many of these experiences, students assume the role of an avatar in the context of narrative-driven missions, allowing them to experience what it is like to apply these areas of thinking in a meaningful and purposeful way as they practice curriculum from their traditional subjects. One of the main goals of our program is for students to begin forming mental strategies for understanding systems, solving problems, and being able to communicate and collaborate with others to accomplish project goals, skills that are in high demand in the modern workplace and are attributes of effective managers and leaders. Browse the job listings on LinkedIn and you will see a large number of job descriptions seeking managers and other leaders who have Systems Thinking and 21st-Century Skills. An ILS is perhaps one of the best settings in which students can develop such skills because the premise is largely role playing based on solving real-world problems while working in teams. Students are afforded the opportunity to apply the 4 C’s, demonstrate leadership, practice emotional intelligence and self-control, be flexible and compromise, innovate solution and reiterate, manage information, reason, and use technology effectively. Education immersion center missions Spaceship simulators in schools have a long history and are an excellent choice for an ILS because they encapsulate an integrated approach to learning. The birthplace of spaceship simulators dates back to 1983 with the grandfather of spaceship sims, Victor Williamson of Utah in the U.S. Over the years, 66 spaceship simulators, including our own, can trace their roots back to Mr. Williamson, who understood the value of 21st-Century Skills long before the term was coined. At our ILS, class sections from Grades 3–12 attend three- to four-day, daylong “missions,” once per semester. Students appear dressed in costume. A typical mission consists in part of a Dream Flight Adventures simulator exercise that includes stops at various planets for Minecraft teamwork challenges and a myriad of integrated activities designed by the students’ classroom teachers relating to each crew position’s specific duties aboard the ship. Tasks include Leggo and Sphero robot challenges, Strawbees to build equipment, 3D printers to replicate broken ship parts, Snap Circuit kits for repairing various circuits aboard the ship, biology experiments to fight off an infection that is spreading, doctor medical checkups, and fitness challenges. They involve writing diplomatic documents to bring peace between factions, writing and performing music to unite planets through matrimony, and performing math calculations to determine the impact force of asteroids on the ship’s hull in an asteroid field. Additional challenges include cross-functional interdependent step-wise crew tasks to defeat space pirates, solving BreakoutEdu boxes to gain access to critical documents locked inside, group presentations to persuade a planet to consider a new form of government, documentary filmmaking for the ship’s log, programming robots to sweep the bridge for a saboteur bomb, and more. Virtual reality The room contains a 1:1 set up of HTC Vive HMDs. Research has shown that virtual reality (VR) is effective with learners. University of Maryland researchers found that information presented in VR makes for more effective retention and recall than traditional desktop displays (Krokos et. al. 2018). According to the Hypothetical Model of Immersive Cognition (HMIC), as researched by Landendorf (2018), “as immersive virtual reality (IVR) stimuli are presented to the brain, the sensory register filters the stimuli, creates a sense of presence, and immediately activates long-term memory, bypassing working memory, resulting in streamlining the cognitive pathway.” A wide range of apps are applicable to ILS open-ended adventures, class subjects, and skills training. For example, we use the app Star Trek Bridge Crew VR in which students work in teams of four in the roles of engineer, tactical, helm, and captain as they engage in a range of 21st-Century Skills, including interdependence, effective use of communication, innovation, critical reflection, compromise, shared responsibility, systems thinking, strategic decision making, challenge management, effective reasoning, and information processing. The mission guides and self-assessment tools we developed for this game are now being used in the U.S. Air Force Academy in the Leadership Department for Distance Learning at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base. The military has found such real-world simulations of teamwork and leadership effective tools for training pilots. Dream flight adventures Our other spaceship simulator involves live action. CEO and creator of Dream Flight Adventures (DFA) Gary Gardiner states, “Dream Flight Adventures provides educational experiences that blend topics from all disciplines and emphasize real-world connections. Each mission in the library includes its own unique curriculum aligned to the Common Core and state standards, including STEM, history, literature and the humanities, and thought-provoking social or ethical issues.” Like a Magic School Bus adventure, students can shrink down and travel through the human body, go to the sea floor, travel back in time and into the future, enter a volcano, and voyage through outer space to visit planets, asteroids, comets, and stars as they are called upon to solve problems throughout the galaxy. It is here that we integrate Minecraft challenges. Minecraft, at its core, is simulated modeling and engineering, but you may be familiar with its many other uses across several subjects including chemistry, math, literature, history, music, and computer programming. For example, students may fly their spaceship in DFA to a planet that is in need of help. Upon arrival, they switch to Minecraft and students work in teams or as a group to accomplish tasks such as building according to blueprint specifications while staying within budget, constructing aqueduct systems and mechanical devices for villagers, or exploring a river system facing challenges along the way. The possibilities are quite endless. The World Peace Game This year we introduced a new star into our Galaxy: The World Peace Game by John Hunter. If you are not yet familiar with this outstanding geopolitical simulation, the game is replete with 21st -Century Skills and Systems Thinking as students work to solve 50 interlocking world problems while at the same time raising the country budget of all nations. Students assume the roles for four country teams (made up of a Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Minister of Defense, Minister of Trade, and Chief Financial Officer), alongside representatives from the United Nations, World Bank, and World Court and some arms dealers. The game is played on a 4m x 4m x 4-layer plexi-glass game board that includes undersea, terrain, sky, and outer space layers containing several hundred game pieces. The game design is complex and the problems knotty, requiring deep thinking, analysis, and creative solution finding. There are coup attempts, war, inventions, trade negotiations, alliances, diplomatic intrigue, saboteurs, ethical quandaries, acts of great humanitarian compassion, and the birth of leaders. Students learn as much about the difficulty of running a country and geopolitics as they do about their own character and inner selves. The game itself is a mirror, demanding the introspection necessary for the creation of world peace. The systems thinking and interpersonal self-discovery the game affords makes it one of the most important games for education there is today. To the future and beyond</> Infinity Learning Spaces are collaborative and student-centered, posing challenges in context as students live their curriculum. They are designed as flexible places within the school—both as a concept and a physical construct—able to absorb and integrate the future with ease (full holographic technology is on the horizon). Equally important, ILSs are highly engaging, fun, full of memorable experiences for students, and offer a great way to get students excited about coming to school and generating school pride. International schools are incubators of best practices and innovation, while at the same time, we can face some distinct challenges within our host countries. The Education Immersion Center at Colegio Internacional de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela is another feather in the cap of the international schools community, demonstrating how our adversities are turned into wonders. Todd Lichtenwalter is Education Immersion Center Instructor and Technology Mentor at Colegio Internacional de Carabobo in Valencia, Venezuela.

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