Above: Lessons are lifted out the textbooks, and students travel to coral reefs, NASA labs or operating rooms through virtual reality. DHS science students recently watched a medical team operate on a patient’s spinal cord. (Courtesy Photo)

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Sometimes it really is brain surgery — or spinal surgery or a kidney transplant. And Dumas High School science students get to watch it.

Through the Interactive Theater at the Liberty Science Center, students not only can watch a surgery in real time, they can interact with the medical team as they perform it. Recently, the students watched a surgeon correct a narrowing of a patient’s spinal cord that was causing pain in the lower back and legs. The surgeon used a microscope camera, and the students shared his view.

The students watched the surgery on a screen set up in the DISD boardroom, and the surgeon explained the procedure to the students and how it would help correct the patient’s medical problem. The anesthesiologist also explained and answered questions about the medications used before and during the surgery.

As the students watched the surgery, they realized their biology and anatomy and physiology lessons were giving them an unexpected understanding of what they were seeing.

“We studied pathogenic viruses in biology, and when we were watching the surgery, I realized why they were taking such great care to make sure everything was sterilized,” James Hudson said. “I also liked how the surgeon explained how there are different ways to do things and why he was choosing to do the surgery a certain way.”

But the virtual lessons aren’t limited to surgeries. Elementary students take field trips to Alaska to learn about sled-dog racing, talk to NASA scientists or listen to storytellers. The technology connects students to a world far beyond Moore County.

“It’s providing today’s students with unprecedented opportunities to visit sites and participate in activities that would otherwise be impossible, and students can benefit from enriched learning opportunities that will enhance their education,” DISD Instructional Technology Coordinator Rhonda Artho said. “The technology is also benefiting the teachers, as they can participate in professional development opportunities with the experts that they would otherwise not be able to learn from.”

DISD students who are learning through virtual reality are part of tectonic shift in education that immerses them in what experts say is a type of educational breakthrough that comes along once in a generation. They say it closes the gap created in 21st century classrooms. According to Dale’s Cone of Experiences, a model that incorporates several theories related to instructional design and learning processes, we remember 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see and up to 90 percent of what we do or simulate. Virtual reality gives students the later 90 percent, and it transcends the classroom. Even the Dallas Cowboys use it. Photorealism, the attempt to reproduce an image as realistically as possible in another medium, has been used with so much success that the Cowboys use it to train their players.According to edsurge.com, “you teach students through video and in immersive content they can ‘touch.’”

It got Ariel Garcia’s attention, one of the DHS students who watched the surgery.

“I don’t want to go into the medical field, but I was impressed with how secure the medical team was,” he said. “They didn’t hesitate, and I could see how they anticipated everything that could happen, and they were prepared for it. Watching the surgery gives me an understanding of the process and the training they have to go through. We hear about how long it takes to be a doctor, but now I see why they have to do it.”

That, the experts say, is the point of virtual reality education. The students see it instead of only studying it. The lessons become more than facts.

“I saw the doctors hold life in their hands,” Garcia said. “That was incredible to watch.”