BARBERTON: When Barberton High School teacher Randa Nemer was offered the option of what to experience using the school’s new virtual reality equipment, she asked to take a field trip to her family’s village in Aitanit, Lebanon.

She strapped on the headset that completely encased her vision, operated some hand controls and found herself flying over her old neighborhood and sailing above the church she remembered as a child. Then she landed on the pavement of Beirut and started exploring the streets where she’d studied.

“My eyes started watering,” Nemer said. “I’ve done Google Earth on my computer before, and I was expecting something like I’d seen before. I didn’t expect that. It was amazing.”

As an instructor to foreign students who are learning the English language, and as the organizer of the annual high school cultural festival, she wanted Barberton’s diverse ethnic population to have the same opportunity to return to their homelands, if only for a few minutes in the virtual world.

Barberton High School’s STEM VR teacher, David Kaser, was only too happy to comply. On Thursday, Kaser’s students helped classmates and parents attending the cultural festival fly all around the world.

Kaser designed the virtual reality class a couple of years ago, then collected about $32,000 in grant money to purchase 15 Oculus Rift VR units and accessories.

Immersing viewers

Each unit is made up of a headset that completely covers the user’s vision, immersing them in whatever virtual reality world program is chosen.

Two hand controls allow the user to interact with the virtual world. To an outsider, the user might look like they are flailing about with no purpose. But in reality, the person wearing the headset might be climbing Mount Everest or seeing a human heart from the inside.

There are also sensors that create a grid so that the headset-wearer knows where real-world boundaries are, avoiding walls, desks and the like.

The 19 students in his class are not only learning how to operate the equipment, they are designing apps and looking for ways that other classes in the building might benefit.

Different classes

In January, Kaser’s students came in on their day off during a teacher work session to inspire the educators to think about how virtual reality might support their lesson plans.

In biology, for instance, students were able to don the headsets and go through blood vessels to watch platelets repair a tear, or take a ringside seat to watch the cellular process.

Kaser said every time he tries to describe the experience, he can’t find the right words. “You just don’t understand until you’re doing it,” he said.

At the cultural festival, Barberton parent Ramadan Kelani — attending with wife Noura Kelani and their four adolescent children — easily learned to work the intuitive controls as he steered his virtual wings through the skies of Libya, eventually hovering over his hometown of Zliten.

“There, that’s my house,” he said. On a laptop, those around him could see the building where his cursor was pointing — the place he called home for 38 years before emigrating to the United States in 2012 — but none had the 360-degree view of sky and ground inside his goggles. He continued over familiar streets and viewed the blue Mediterranean coastline.

STEM VR student Faith Adkins, 16, was having fun watching the reaction of those who stopped into the room to sample the equipment.

“I think it’s cool to be the person who helps them go back and see their towns,” she said.

Austin Evans, 18, said he almost regrets having to graduate this year because it means giving up the VR class.

When he first attended class, “I thought we’d get to play games with something like this, but it was so much more,” he said.

“I didn’t realize we could get to be teachers in a way, and go to other classes and help teachers educate students in a new way. It’s awesome.”

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com.