Anyone who ever dissected a frog in a school lab assignment probably remembers the smell of chemical preservatives, as well as their feelings of squeamishness.
Enter zSpace, a California-based technology firm, that has developed an electronic alternative.
This approach relies on computerized experiments in a setting of three-dimensional virtual reality. No odors, no ickiness.
Founded in 2007, zSpace is widely regarded as a national and international leader in this area of classroom technology.
Students, equipped with the company’s 3-D glasses and electronic styluses, can perform dissections on electronic replicas of hundreds of lifeforms -- from human cells to dinosaurs.
Nor does the technology end there. Students immersed in zSpace’s virtual-reality world can use the same computers to explore volcanos, repair broken rotor blades or disassemble railway cars and put them back together.
“It’s a safe environment,” said Lisa Grippo, the company’s sales director for the Northeast, who is based on Long Island. “You just don’t have to worry that students are going to hurt themselves or blow something up.”
Work stations with zSpace hardware and software will be used in 400 school districts nationwide, including 10 districts on Long Island.
John Hildebrand, Newsday’s senior education writer, recently joined 13 educators for zSpace training at Lincoln Orens Middle School in Island Park.
Here are samples of lab exercises tackled by that group and others:
A virtual world
The zSpace work stations consist of "all-in-one" Windows computers equipped with four built-in cameras.
The cameras help create a 3-D effect: Objects on computer screens change position in order to conform with the head and hand movements of students sitting at the work stations.
Students use electronic styluses to manipulate the 3-D objects and can pull objects so close that the figures appear to jump off the screen.
"To be able to go into a virtual world, pull it apart and put it back together -- I think that is real learning," said Vincent Randazzo, principal of Lincoln Orens Middle School.
Made for experimentation
The zSpace system encourages students to create experiments. They can decide which objects to manipulate on their screens -- for example, the section of a tree trunk, the railway car and the automobile shown here. There are thousands of objects, or models, from which to choose.
When models appear on-screen, students use various electronic tools -- a ruler, a cutting plane -- to measure or slice objects into cross-sections. One tap of a button on-screen allows students to compare the size of two models -- say, a shark and a beluga whale.
Frog dissections? No problem.
Students use styluses to peel the outer skin off the frog in virtual reality, then examine the inner parts of the body.
Press a button, and the frog's body parts are labeled. Press another button and an electronic camera takes photos of the labeled parts, which can be stored for later review.
Cadavers can stay at the morgue
Normally, any labwork with human cadavers would be restricted to the college level. This technology allows high school students to examine human anatomy in virtual reality. Students can use styluses to remove a skull, for example, then probe facial muscles and sections of brain tissue.
(Real) Batteries not required
One set of zSpace experiments dealing with electricity is known as Franklin's Laboratory, in honor of the American inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin.
In the exercise shown here, youngsters use styluses to place electrical batteries on circuit boards. The batteries power a quadcopter with four-bladed propellers, similar to those employed by some drones.
When a propeller breaks down, students are prompted to troubleshoot the problem, fixing the copter with parts taken from another machine.
Laws of motion
Another set of experiments in physical forces and motion is called Newton's Park, in honor of the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton.
The experiment pictured here employs spherical objects -- a soccer ball, bowling ball, cannonball -- placed atop a ramp. Students' styluses hit launch buttons, causing the balls to roll downward. Meanwhile, electronic instruments measure the speed of the rolling balls and their trajectory.
Second grader Sophie Ngai explores zSpace, a 3-D monitor that enable science labs and other activities to jump off the screen as students use Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics STEAM in Plainview-Old Bethpage School District on Thursday, May 19, 2016 in Plainview.
Newsday reporter John Hildebrand tries out a zSpace station, which is a 3D virtual reality educational laboratory, at Newsday's Melville office on Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.
zSpace Sales Director Lisa Grippo explains the control stylus to Newsday reporter John Hildebrand as he tries out a zSpace station, which is a 3D virtual reality educational laboratory, at Newsday's ofices in Melville. Using 3D glasses and a stylus, the zSpace station can teach students different STEM courses. The zSpace system is shown Monday, Aug. 22, 2016.