Winchester student’s project takes you on immersive tour of a human cell

Imagine sitting in the dark watching minuscule particles shooting over your head and amoebic objects floating by. It’s a magical and disorienting experience, and it’s soon to be a new teaching tool in biology classes at Winchester High School. Created by students themselves, this immersive cinematic experience transports the viewers inside the processes of a human cell.

The project is the brainchild of Winchester High School student Will Bicks, who found it limiting that in his biology class students had to share one virtual reality headset to watch the tour of the cell, allowing each of them to watch only a few minutes at a time. So he got thinking about fixing the problem. He decided to take the 20-foot geodesic dome that was already created by arts students last year, into something of a curved mini-IMAX theater that would fit about 20 students inside of it and would allow everyone to share a full virtual reality cell tour with narration without having to use a headset.

Going beyond biology in the future

“The biology is where we’re starting, but it’s by no means where we’re ending,” said Will Bicks, who says that any 360 video from Youtube — a tour of the pyramids of Giza or a geometry-themed video — can be projected onto the dome if processed through special software.

Bicks works at the school’s Creative Technology Center (CTC) help desk, a convenient time to work on the project.

To bring his project to life, Bicks applied for a student innovation grant from the Winchester Foundation for Educational Excellence, outlining the budget of $1,000 for technology equipment, components for a special computer to support virtual reality processing, and materials for covering the dome.

But implementing the idea was going to take more than just putting the shell on numerous poles. Projecting a VR video on the dome’s surface made of triangles and polygons required splitting the video file into channels on a special software for three projectors. To help with the challenge Andrea Zampitella, WHS library and media specialist, suggested bringing in Aurelio Ramos, Boston’s audiovisual artist and software engineer who’s created a similar dome for his art project. Ramos’s visit was part of the ongoing CTC Speaker series at the high school, now funded by the Winchester Savings Bank.

Even finding the right material for affordable price for the dome’s skinning was tougher than expected. The students had to go to six hardware stores before they found the right material for the skinning of the dome — marine shrink wrap, typically used to cover boats.

But it’s solving challenges like this that makes for a valuable learning process, said Caren Connelly, which includes everything from idea inception to writing a grant and creating a budget.

“It represents what students need to be doing — project-based learning,” said Caren Connelly, the executive director of WFEE. “This is wild stuff. That’s what challenges kids and gets them connected.”

Bringing in experts like Ramos exposes students to working with consultants and collaborative program solving, she said.

On a recent afternoon, during the first day of the new W.I.N. hour block at the high school, students were busy taping numerous triangles from the wrap to cover the dome. Ramos roamed around the room offering advice and fidgeting with the software on a projector.

This project, Instructional Technology Specialist Kathleen Grace pointed out, is an example of an innovation created by synthesizing already existing pieces.

“You have different parts and technologies, but you don’t always know how it’s going to connect,” she said. “But then you get a student who can see something different, and Will did that.”

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