Advances in gaming technology are bringing mission training experience to high-school classrooms to spark student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM).
"The gamers were demanding higher and higher pixel count and more and more computational capability. This led to advances in graphics engines and graphics cards, which are now phenomenally capable," says Chester Kennedy, Lockheed Martin vice-president of engineering, global training and logistics.
Lockheed Martin leveraged the technology in its "Prepar3D" visual simulation platform which allows users to create scenarios in aviation, maritime and ground settings.
The software, based on Microsoft ESP, has been installed on the Air Mobility Command's multifunction training aids and has C-130J operational flight profiles and system models to simulate realistic aircraft performance.
Years ago, it would have cost a tremendous amount of money and racks of computer equipment to drive the level of realism now afforded by the gaming technology, says Kennedy.
The Pensacola, Florida-based National Flight Academy, dedicated to filling growing demand for science-based careers in the USA, saw the learning possibilities in Prepar3D for delivering innovative education programmes.
David Shikada, National Flight Academy's director of strategic development described the school's approach: "In a nutshell, our mission is to educate youth on STEM fundamentals. We offer an experiential integrated curriculum that applies serious games and simulation to convey math and science learning."
The academy's aviation classroom experience (ACE) learning laboratory uses digital media, virtual game play and simulation technologies to get the lessons across. Since 2008, says Shikada, the academy has brought the ACE lab to five schools in the Florida region: Warrington Middle School and Escambia High School at Pensacola, Milton High School, Merritt Island High School, and the University of West Florida at Pensacola.
The academy transforms a drab classroom to a multisensory environment. A typical ACE installation consists of 12-15 PC workstations set up in a classroom or lab space, which can be either purpose-built or refurbished, says Shikada.
The PCs are loaded with Prepar3D software and other learning content. An initial ACE installation runs $100,000-170,000 depending on the number of stations. Here, instructors set up real-time flight scenarios for students to study and work out problems.
Warrington Middle School - at risk of closure for low, sustained performance - agreed to be a test case in the 2009-2010 school year, says Shikada.
At the end of the school year, a statewide Florida assessment test showed that math and science proficiency on average was three times higher for the students who had participated in the programme, compared with their peers.
The school now has no mechanism to track student progress in STEM learning. A comprehensive student assessment and evaluation programme is "a work in progress", notes Shikada. And seeing the need to change in the way subjects are taught in the digital age, the academy has established the first teacher development programme at the University of West Florida. The academy is in discussion with Florida schools about adopting the ACE course, now an elective, into the core curriculum.
Also in the pipeline is development of a community-based ACE learning model - "Centers of Inspiration" - where the academy will install facilities at high schools in the region and align learning with activities at museums or science centres. Shikada says the school hopes to start construction of at least two centres in 2012.
By rough estimates, local communities would have to raise about $2 million initial capital to open a centre, and funding would depend largely on local donations.
Another work in progress is the Aviation Web Experience, which the academy designed to reach even younger students.
"Research has shown that if you really want to excite youth about math and science for a living, you've got to get them at the fifth grade [age 10]," says Shikada. "That's when children make the decision they have an affinity for math and science - or hate it."