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Loess Hills first-graders create a ‘virtual reality’ zoo

February 3, 2019

SIOUX CITY -- A wild lynx has padded paws, can escape predators by hiding in the snow, and is able to leap as high as 60 feet into the air.

Those were the findings of Ethen Pina Ramos, 6, who recorded a report as a YouTube video.

OK, what else can the Loess Hills Elementary School student tell us about the lynx, which coincidentally is also his school’s mascot?

“Well, a lynx hears super well and he can also ...” the first-grader said before trailing off.

Um, Ethen, there’s a lynx standing right next to you! Wow, and it is right in the middle of Beth Taylor’s classroom!

No, don’t be worried, real-life animals aren’t invading grade school classrooms.

The virtual reality lynx in Ethen’s video is simply a superimposed image that’s been chroma-keyed via a green screen (actually, a large piece of green fabric) onto his videotaped report.

“I wasn’t really standing next to a lynx,” he said, smiling. “It just looked like I was.”

Ethen and his first-grade classmates have created a “virtual zoo” in a hallway of their westside school.

Earning an education grant last summer, Taylor said she and fellow teachers Jessica Faulk, Kristi Von Hagel, Amy Lamoureux and Veronica Arellano Munoz spent last summer developing the project that incorporates four components of their students’ curriculum.

In a science project detailing the habitat of wildlife, kids researched an animal of their choice and prepared a written report that had to be read on camera. Satisfying Loess Hills’ computer science requirements, the kids also needed to create a Quick Response (QR) code that would give other students access to corresponding videotaped reports by scanning a bar code via school tablets.

“The students needed to demonstrate knowledge in reading, writing, science and computer science in a single project,” Taylor explained. “They’re applying four different skills and having fun doing it.”

That was certainly the case for Ethen, who chose to learn about lynxes because “they rock!”

However, he is just as enthusiastic about cheetahs, tigers and other wildcats.

On the other hand, Principal John Beeck is happy that the first-grade virtual zoo is teaching other students about the animal world.

“Any student from any class can simply scan a QR code on a poster with their tablet and learn facts they didn’t know before,” he said. “It’s completely interactive to everybody.”

This is because the virtual zoo isn’t hidden in a classroom. Instead, it’s in the hallway for everyone to see.

On this particular day, Loess Hills fifth-graders were examining what the first-graders were up to.

Specifically, Logan Parker was excited to learn about his favorite animals, which happen to be snakes and bald eagles.

“I like snakes because they lay eggs and stick close to the ground,” he said.

So, why does Logan like bald eagles so much?

“Bald eagles eat snakes,” he said with a shrug.

Well, a person can appreciate a predator and his prey, we guess.

Taylor is happy that the same technique used in creating a virtual zoo can be applied in subjects like history and social studies.

“The days of a simple book report may be over,” she suggested. “Students retain more of their learning when lessons are more interactive.”

Lynx expert Ethen is simply pleased that he gets to show off his knowledge of a favorite animal.

“It makes me happy to know that older kids are learning about animals from me,” he said.

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