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Christiansburg Institute centerpiece of virtual reality learning app

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CHRISTIANSBURG (WSLS 10) - Some Blacksburg students are learning history and social studies on the road, and they're using technology to bring history to life.

If the remaining two buildings of the historic Christiansburg Institute could talk, Auburn Elementary students might know what they were saying.

"I think it's kind of cool that were actually at the building outside of it right now and that we get to use the tablet to see where the other buildings were in the past," fifth-grader Lucas Coffey said.

Coffey and his fifth grade classmates are testing a new app designed by Virginia Tech researchers called C.I. Spy. The app is a learning tool, giving users a virtual view into the history of places like the Christiansburg Institute.

One of the app's developers, Aaron Johnson, explained how students use the app to see old buildings in a new light.

"Students are able to look through the lens of their iPad computers and see the campus as it once stood," Johnson explained.

The app uses augmented reality to give users the ability to see the now boarded-up Edgar A. Long building as it appeared decades earlier, as an African American school. As students hold their iPads up toward the building, they see its facade as it once appeared. Students digging into the past with every tap on the screen.

"Embedded in some of these buildings are pieces of evidence that tell them about the lived experience of students here at Christiansburg institute," Johnson said.

"They're the ones that are in control of their learning. So it really is an authentic way of learning. It's a meaningful way of learning of course it incorporates cutting edge technology that the kids love."

Pictures, documents, and even accounts from former students about their experiences are available in the app. Johnson said those details make this app more than a digital school book.

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"That piece of evidence gives them an idea of what was being taught everything from physics to barbering," Johnson said.

Christiansburg Institute alumni joined students on their journey through the past. Alumni who also work work to revitalize what remains. Alumna Jessie Eaves said learning about educational experiences of the past is important.

Eaves explained, "It really makes me very excited to know that they are interested in the history of the school because a lot of their parents probably don't even know the history of the school."

The Auburn students were interested and engaged, using hands on learning to merge past and present.

"This is better that we actually get to go to the building instead of just looking at a book and reading about it," fifth-grader Coffey explained.

Researchers said they are working on curriculum material to complement the app's information in the classroom.