Christian

Christian Gonzalez demonstrates his virtual world and shares his opinion of tech trends.

Christian Gonzalez demonstrated his foray in virtual reality without a pause.

Like creating an avatar and coding a virtual world, actually a number of them, was nothing more than a routine assignment. Like he can relate wholeheartedly to protagonist Wade Owen Watts in Ernest Cline’s future-forecasting novel “Ready Player One,” where Watts lives in a tower of trailers Jenga-style and attends class via headset.

“My topic was radio electro-magnetic infrared waves,” Gonzalez, 13, said with the confident delivery of a grad student explaining a project for a corporate research benefactor. 

He revealed his avatar and various data fields — about a mobile phone, microwave radio and more — that fulfilled the requirements of his topic. But then after receiving a confused expression, he explained how the properties of the Merge Cube brought his coded images into the real world view of his tablet. Display Daily writer Len Scrogan said the “intermediating device,” or Merge Cube, brings “a tactile and kinesthetic experience into play.”

Very cutting edge (at least to one who learned to type on an IBM Selectric) and a little like “Space Jam” without Michael Jordan or Bugs Bunny. Gonzalez’s fellow classmates demonstrated similar efforts with animated avatar-like results on a variety of topics, many including the agricultural industry.

Just another day in Janell Miller’s eighth-grade science, technology, engineering and mathematics class at Washington Academic Middle School. 

“I have good kids,” Miller said.

Her class took advantage of a grant Miller received from Ruiz 4 Kids, the nonprofit affiliated with Dinuba-based Ruiz Food Products Inc. The grant, just $322, was part of the nonprofit’s Mini-Grants for Teachers Program, which Ruiz’s Blanca Santana said provides teachers with money for creative ideas they wish they could provide for their classrooms “if only they could find the money.”

The cash, which is contributed by Ruiz employees, paid for a year-long subscription to an educational app called CoSpaces and other VR-related materials. Miller said it was money well spent, while Santana said, after viewing students’ projects, “This is the best part of my job.”

“I’ll write another grant application next year to have continued access (to CoSpaces),” Miller said. “My goal is to continue to integrate computer science with whatever, whether it’s plant science, engineering, math. And we do a lot of programming.”

Miller maintains a list of available jobs in various tech fields on her classroom wall and said she makes sure her students know why learning at the most advanced levels could provide them with a good career. 

A year ago, she was one of 12 technology and education specialists named by former Gov. Jerry Brown to California’s Computer Science Strategic Implementation Advisory Panel. The panel’s members were charged with drawing up plans to make sure teachers are prepared, schools have enough resources and the state’s new computer science standards are implemented fairly and effectively, according to EdSource.org.

Miller said what her students learn now will no doubt benefit them as they continue their education and seek jobs as adults. But she said this is just a start and that technology will evolve.

“This will be the Oregon Trail when they go to college,” she said.

Her students said they could envision something like a “Ready Player One” approach to virtual reality in education. Valeria Mercado, 14, created a couple of worlds to illustrate her project centering on Central Valley agriculture. 

“It’s really useful,” she said.

Isaac Contreras, 13, agreed. “Ah dude, it’s cool,” he said. “The first time I used it, it wasn’t the best. As I got used to it, then it started getting easy.

“A lot more people could use it. It could help them, especially with math. I did a hotel type thing. In the future, it would be nice to own one.”

Contreras thought big. He built a virtual race track around the property just to see if he could. He also created a more conventional project that focused on the region’s biggest money-making crops. The top for Fresno County was almonds.

Steven Soto, 13, did Kings County crops. He explained why. “I was curious,” he said. “What I’ve seen is milk is the highest value.” He said working with the system and on the app “wasn’t that hard.”

Gonzalez said two nights before the presentation that day, he’d watched “Ready Player One,” which was directed by Steven Spielberg. He said he has a lot of fun working with the virtual reality program and sees the potential. And as for Cline’s futuristic version coming to life, he said, “Yeah, in a couple of years or so. Maybe.”

Then he thought a bit. “I’m pretty sure,” he said.

Could be. Could be. Or to quote Eric Idle from an early Monty Python sketch, “Say no more. Say no more.”

All in good time.

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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