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Central Indiana high school opens gaming lab for students

January 2, 2019

TIPTON, Ind. (AP) — Games and technology played a big part in John Robertson’s formative years.

Whether it was his dad demolishing him in Space Invaders or his mother’s consoling wisdom when he couldn’t beat Soda Popinski in Mike Tyson’s Punchout, those memories turned into a passion for the Tipton High School language arts teacher.

Now that passion is opening doors for tomorrow’s leaders at Tipton, and putting them well ahead of the game in the process.

Robertson cut the ribbon recently in the official public grand opening of Tipton High School’s 12-computer virtual reality and esports lab. It’s the first dedicated VR and esports arena in a high school in the state, and possibly the country, according to Robertson.

“I really wanted to get Tipton out in front of new technology,” Robertson said. “I feel like people see us as an agricultural community, which we are, but don’t connect that with new tech. VR has been around for a while in a variety of formats, but the new VR equipment is so immersive and really puts you in places, or situations that our students would never have the opportunity to see or do. I wanted to be a leader in this area.”

The lab is available for any Tipton teacher to use VR during their classes after training with Robertson on the equipment. Several classes have already gotten use out of the VR lab and Robertson said he will try to get whatever VR experience people want to use in their classes, pending the cost of software.

Anthony Richert has used the lab for his geography class multiple times already with Google Earth VR.

“The benefits of this sort of environment are many, but for me and my classes specifically, I feel that the main benefits are that the kids get to step into a new environment that is highly kinetic, instead of sitting in a desk for 75 minutes,” Richert said, noting that his students stepped into a world that is completely engrossing to the senses as they utilize it.

“As the education system in America evolves, and more people utilize this amazing tool, I believe there will be more and more programs developed for the various content areas,” Richert added.

Born out of Robertson’s idea, the concept blossomed when he presented a grant proposal to the Tipton County Foundation last spring. The foundation backed the proposal, giving Robertson $35,000 for the project.

“The proposal was detailed and well-written and had all the earmarks our grant making volunteers were looking for in what they called the ‘Imagine!’ grants for classroom teachers last spring: innovation, enrichment of the experience, collaboration, uniqueness,” said TCF president Frank Giammarino, who noted that the staff visited Robertson at school to test drive his home VR equipment.

“For a baby boomer like me,” Giammarino said, “using the visor to feel like I was standing on the edge of the roof of a skyscraper convinced me that we have come a long way from Atari and Pong.”

On Monday, the public mingled with students and members of the esports gaming club, putting on goggles to play a variety of games, while a demo program allowed newcomers to the technology an opportunity to step out on the same skyscraper ledge Giammarino experienced, come face-to-face with extraterrestrials, and stare down a snarling dinosaur, feeling the vibrations of its breath bearing down.

The lab’s mission is twofold: providing an immersive educational experience for students and teachers while also opening the door for the emergence of esports teams.

“Esports is huge and it is growing so, so fast,” Robertson said. “Our students can win scholarships for this stuff. We’re competing in a tournament in the spring where they can win $16,000 per player on a five-man team to go to college.”

The term esports refers to organized competitive video gaming, played on high-end computers, in teams of five or six. Games are often broadcast on the internet and the industry is rapidly growing, with sites popping up all over the country, including the 100,000 square-foot Esports Stadium Arlington which opened in November in Texas.

“People over a certain age may not see it coming, but esports is this huge wave coming and brings with it a large amount of future careers,” Robertson said. “We want to prepare our students for the jobs that will exist in the future, so by getting in on this early and preparing them for the tech jobs, PR jobs, management, or whatever, they’ll already have experience in the field which should help them land those jobs.”

Luke Stoker, a three-sport standout athlete in football, basketball and track at Tipton, is also the gaming club’s vice president.

“The obvious difference is that esports does not take as much physical ability,” Stoker said. “I think it’s really the team-based aspect that draws people to esports. It’s really similar to being on the football field or the basketball court or something like that, the amount of communication it takes, it really correlates, which is something that is really cool to see and also really cool to experience.

“It really is a team-building experience. You can’t have any disagreements among teammates or anything like that. It takes a really strong friendship base throughout the team, a lot of working together. I want to pursue sports in college and play sports in college and something like this will really help me with that communication aspect, that teamwork aspect.”

Senior Lauren Allison is another member of the gaming club who also participates in a physical sport. The cross country runner said she joined the club this fall.

“I enjoy playing games and knew some of my friends would be joining,” Allison said. “It’s much more fun than I was expecting it to be. I’ve met a lot more friends through this, people I might not have talked to or known without joining. I hope a lot more people in the school come and join.”

Once his grant was approved, Robertson began to remodel the room. Computers arrived in late August and Robertson began training teachers to use the equipment. In late October, the room was close enough to set up a demo for students. When the desks arrived in early November, Robertson began setting up all of the PCs.

Students have been taking advantage of the lab since the middle of November.

“We had our first gaming event in there November 14th,” Robertson said. “That was the first what I would call ‘official’ use of the lab, even though I was still putting cosmetic upgrades in it.

“Since then, several classes have come in and used it for school.”

Mike Grimme, Ethan Worthington and Brett Stoker, Luke’s father, have all taken their classes to experience a BBC program that takes the audio from a World War II journalist who went on a bombing run with a RAF crew to bomb Berlin. It puts the student in the perspective of the journalist.

“We had read several columns by Hoosier Ernie Pyle, and this VR experience fit nicely with the soldiers’-eye view of the war,” Brett Stoker said. “Students were excited and impressed with the reality of the experience.”

“A lab like this is not just bells and whistles,” Brett Stoker added. “It has the potential of augmenting what we do in the classroom right now, but I think its greatest benefit is that it puts our school, teachers and students in a position to take advantage of new programs and innovations that are being created every day. Because of John’s efforts, and the generosity of Tipton County Foundation, Tipton is on the cutting edge, which is exciting.”

Grimme, a teacher at Tipton for 36 years, offered a similar response.

“Many of my students said that they could actually feel some of the anxiety involved in a bombing mission,” Grimme said. Grimme “Students were very excited to experience flying in an airplane and seeing the destruction their bombs were causing German industrial cities. When my students are interested in something they work harder to learn more about it.”

According to Robertson’s grant proposal, Tipton joins area schools with esports teams such as Noblesville, Carmel and Avon, while creating the lab in the way described makes it one of the only schools with a dedicated “arena” for its esports teams to compete.

Robertson said that there will be varsity and JV esports teams in the spring, stemming from the gaming club. He also noted that participants in the club must maintain passing grades and not have absence issues.

“I’ve had a couple kids tell me how much gaming club has made them work to get their grades up, and to come to school,” Robertson said. “That made me happy. That really got to me.”

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Source: Kokomo Tribune

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Information from: Kokomo Tribune, http://www.ktonline.com

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