The first thing that strikes you is that you’re standing in mid-air, floating hundreds of feet above the towering buildings of a city. It takes your breath.

Then you start to focus on the details. The city is New York. Familiar buildings and landmarks spread out around you as you glance about the city far below. New views and different buildings appear as you move your head or turn about.

After a few minutes, the scene changes and you’re suspended high above London. Then Paris. Then other cities located around the world. You’re immersed in a high-flying tour of the planet that you’ve taken without an airplane.

Welcome to virtual reality. This particular slice of it, this virtual tour of some of the world’s biggest cities, was produced for Google Earth and is one of the programs used to demonstrate the technology in the virtual reality lab at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Sandy Springs.

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School sophomore Alec Johnson enters a virtual world. (Special)

Long the province of gamers and one of the regular Next Big Things touted in computer programming, virtual reality — or VR, as it’s often called — is moving into schools.

Students in several local schools are donning computer-connected goggles to enter virtual worlds or using computer tablets or smartphones to blend the real with the computer-generated.

They’re taking virtual field trips to faraway places, learning about the lives of refugee families or studying the inner workings of volcanoes. Some are making their own VR products for use by others.

A student experiences virtual reality at Atlanta International School. (Special)

“VR in education is still fairly new,” said Marsha Maxwell, head of educational technology for the Atlanta International School in Buckhead. “We’re looking at the ramifications and how to use it.”

It’s catching notice. “It really captures students’ attention, and they really enjoy something they can [interact with],” Maxwell said. “They don’t just have to be consumers.”

Maxwell likes to refer to virtual technology as “XR” instead of “VR,” in order to include the variety of types of alternative realities made possible through computers.

“It’s many different platforms,” she said, including “AR,” or “augmented reality,” which adds to the real world, and “MR,” or “mixed reality,” which mixes AR and VR, she said.

Although some teachers who have tried device-based virtual lessons in their classrooms say they don’t think the programs add much, others are enthusiastic about the possibilities.

Marsha Maxwell, head of educational technology for Atlanta International School. (Special)

“It’s pretty cool,” said St. Pius X Catholic School social studies teacher Ellis Thomas, who last year led four 22-student history classes on a virtual tour of Versailles when they were studying King Louis XIV. “It’s pretty cheap, too. Normally a field trip to France costs several thousand dollars.”

Thomas said he could direct the students and lecture to them as they toured the French king’s home and its gardens using material made and provided by Google. He also used Google tours of battlefields from World War I and II, he said, and this year he’s thinking about leading his American history students on virtual tours of Civil War battlefields.

“It’s not something you would teach with every day,” he said, “It’s kind of a supplement. But sometimes I think the VR field trips are more useful than the usual museum field trips [because they provide] the sense of being there and seeing everything to scale. It’s fairly compelling for the kids.”

Students remember what they’ve encountered in the virtual world, said AIS’s Maxwell, who studied behavioral neuroscience for her doctorate. “I can read all I want about how a dinosaur moves,” she said, “but if I’m walking with one through a virtual forest, it’s very different. … The whole thing is about applications. It’s not about having experiences but how do I augment my learning?”

Mount Vernon Presbyterian School teacher Marie Graham. (Joe Earle)

In other words, the technology may be entertaining, but content matters.

“As long as you have clear objectives, it can really add to [learning],” Maxwell said. “It’s all down to having a good teacher in the end.”

VR also offers students a chance to experience places and people they might not otherwise encounter.

“It seems to me to be a great way to help kids understand perspective,” Maxwell said. “With virtual reality, you really get to walk in someone else’s shoes and you get to see what someone else sees.”

Marie Graham, director of Mount Vernon’s virtual and augmented reality lab and teacher of a 15-student VR course, believes immersive technology offers a way for students to learn empathy.

One VR program she has used, she said, followed refugee families. Students who went into in their world virtually, she said, left it with opinions that differed from the ones they had held before. “The kids said, ‘They’re like us.’ I said, ‘yes.’ Then I realized [the students’] language about refugees had changed. I thought, ‘How do we harness this and use it?’ ”

One answer was the VR design lab she directs. Through the lab, Mount Vernon students develop virtual reality projects for use by others. They put one together for the Center for Civil and Human Rights to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his death. Another project is designing a program to teach math and science and “basic concepts” to children in a school in a small rural village in India, Mount Vernon senior Bryce Jones said.

Still another VR lab project is to design a program for pediatric rehabilitation patients at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, Graham said. One idea is to create a virtual experience where a patient will feel like he or she is riding a bike. “When you’re biking with the goggles on,” said sophomore Robbie Long, “it’ll feel like you’re actually in a place. We can put it in any environment.”

Graham says her class attracts students of various types, from techies to filmmakers. She saw the importance of bringing VR technology into schools when she experienced it herself. “This is the technology that is taking off … in our world right now,” she said. “This is not going away.”

A student experiences virtual reality at Atlanta International School. (Special)

At the same time, using VR in the classroom can help reclaim a technology more often associated with entertainment than education. “Games can be very destructive,” she said. “This is taking that technology and saying, ‘How can we use it for good?’ I love that the kids can have an impact. … I want them to be the people that do and not just think about doing.”

And it can change their view of the world.

Last year, one of her classes was reading a book about India. She couldn’t take them on a field trip to see a city there, she said, but she could take them to the VR lab.

They donned the goggles and flipped on the Google video. Soon, they were flying about Mumbai.

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Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.