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ISU mobile classroom gives students virtual experience

SU’s Pete Evans with students in Waukee

AMES — Thousands of Iowa students in grades K-12 are getting a taste of what it’s like to rocket into orbit as well as more down-to-earth pursuits in a mobile classroom venture from Iowa State University.

ISU industrial design professor Pete Evans coordinates the Forward Learning Experience, or FLEx, which combines creative thinking, STEM programs, and emerging technologies in a commercial cargo van.

“We’ll roll up to a school and we can either do these programs in the parking lot or we can go into classrooms,” Evans says. “We’ll have virtual reality headsets to provide the students — teachers, too — with these experiences.” FLEx is partnering with ISU’s Women in Science and Engineering Program, or WiSE, and recently landed a grant from the Iowa Space Grant Consortium.

With that money, Evans’ team merged virtual reality with a motion base to offer students thrill rides in a flight simulator. “The students can fly the newest training plane that Boeing and Saab have put together. It’s a brand new contract called the Redhawk,” Evans says. “This is what all of the future astronauts will learn to fly on.”

Launched in 2014, Evans says FLEx has reached 80,00o students in all corners of the state with plans to further broaden its scope in the year ahead. The flight simulator is versatile and can also offer realistic rides on everything from rollercoasters — to farm tractors.

“There’s a farming simulator application that’s pretty red-hot,” Evans says. “We’ve already got that hooked up. Students can hop into a Case or a Deere and start to be in virtual reality and test out some of these more local ideas — and futures — that are also very relevant.”

New programs in the coming months will include a celebration of NASA’s new Artemis program, offering glimpses of upcoming ventures to the Moon and to Mars.

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