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Do you know how a star dies? Jeremiah Triplett does. The eighth grader at Breakthrough Schools’ EPrep Cliffs Campus in Cleveland also knows how stars are born. He’s birthed one. And he has sent planets into orbit and created an entire solar system.

He did all of this in the virtual reality app, Visceral Science, which lets students like Jeremiah don a headset and launch into space, where they take control over clumps of dust and matter that form planets and stars. The app also lets them fast forward through the many millions of years it takes stars to form, and then through the billions of years of their lifespan before they die their spectacular deaths.

Jeremiah’s school is one of only two in the entire country, both in the Breakthrough Schools charter network in Cleveland, to be equipped with a 5G internet connection that makes such an experience possible.

Brian Greene, a professor of physics and math at Columbia University, created Visceral Science as an entry into the Verizon 5G EdTech Challenge, which sought out ideas that would leverage the super-fast internet connection to improve educational opportunities in under-resourced middle schools. Greene said 5G doesn’t just make Visceral Science better; it makes it possible.

“For these experiences to work, they’ve got to be seamless when you’re in the virtual environment,” he said. “If you do something like toss a planet into orbit and there’s even a fraction of a second delay, it kicks you out of the experience. It all of a sudden feels fake. And when it feels fake, you engage with it differently. You’re no longer in a virtual world.”

5G seems to put an end to dizziness, nausea and headaches caused by virtual reality headsets. Greene said he’s a particularly sensitive test case himself and none of Jeremiah’s classmates complained about any negative side effects of their trips through space. (I tried out the headset myself at a recent demonstration in New York City and can vouch for the smoothness of the visuals as someone who previously had bad experiences with virtual reality.)

Verizon’s Innovative Learning initiative will bring 5G internet connections to 30 more schools, all of them under-resourced, in the first half of 2020 and grow to 100 total schools from there.

Justina Nixon Saintil, the Verizon Foundation’s director of corporate social responsibility, leads Verizon Innovative Learning. She said the program, which has brought tablets and other devices along with teacher training to more than 150 schools so far, aims to be a powerful force in schools that have lacked access to technology.

“5G is not even levelling the playing field,” Nixon Saintil said. “It is really giving them an opportunity to move ahead.”

That’s not lost on the kids in Cleveland – or their teachers. Katie Grootegoed is the Verizon Innovative Learning site director at Breakthrough Schools and the charter network’s director of tech-enhanced learning. She said her students haven’t had access to the types of technologies their suburban peers enjoy.  Now, engineers and developers are asking Jeremiah and his classmates for feedback about the 5G connection and the experiences it makes possible.

“The kids are taking a leadership role that’s uncharted for anybody,” Grootegoed said. “They take a lot of pride in that.”

Access to 5G – and the high-quality virtual reality environments it can deliver – could mean big changes for education. Greene is already thinking about what might follow the spacewalk Visceral Science now offers. He envisions a series of virtual reality experiences that give students a close look at various elements in the universe, from big to small, simple to complex.

Greene believes students learn more from experiences than a teacher’s or a textbook’s explanations. Technology, he’s convinced, can tip education in the future to be more “experiential.”

For instance, he wants to take kids into the interior of an atom. Even if they don’t have the words for nucleus, electron, proton, neutron or quark, they can see these parts and how they function, developing a more concrete understanding and building curiosity. Once they can picture how it works, he believes teachers can fill in the details of why.

Jeremiah lives in Cleveland where there’s enough light pollution to block out most of the stars. He has never seen a shooting star or the Milky Way. But in the app, he has seen many galaxies, and he knows the different colors and shapes they can take on. He has seen how stars get bigger and change colors as they explode.

“One of the things the app shows is that space is really, really beautiful,” Jeremiah said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about 5G was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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