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Baltimore Polytechnic Institute unveils student-driven virtual reality lab


Max Breitmeyer had already completed two of the most challenging Advanced Placement classes offered at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute by the end of his junior year, and he wanted to dig deeper into the world of computer science.

So he and three liked-minded classmates at the city high school conceived of and built a virtual reality lab in what used to be an empty classroom on Poly’s second floor. The school held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, celebrating the opening of the first and only virtual reality lab in a Baltimore public school, funded by Poly alumni from the Class of 1963 who wanted to support the youths’ drive and initiative.

Visitors to the lab can put on a headset and be transported anywhere in the world through the virtual reality technology. One program allows headset-wearers to travel through the human bloodstream, inspecting red and white blood cells. Another takes the user to a room filled with spiders, a form of exposure therapy for people with arachnophobia.

“In this day in age, with budget cuts and everything, what this really speaks to is that if you give kids a little resources and throw support their way, they can not only learn something new, but thrive and grow,” said Laura Green, executive director of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute Foundation.“This will become something that benefits the whole community.”

The school’s mission is to provide a rigorous STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — curriculum. Members of the Poly Class of 1963 donated about $10,000 to help launch the lab. Arnold Miller, 71, one of those alumni, said the education he and his former classmates received at Poly set their careers in motion.

Many things have changed at Poly since Miller attended. It’s located in a different building, students no longer have to wear ties, and the student body is much more diverse and includes girls.

“A lot of the school philosophy is still the same,” said Miller, who worked for decades as a software engineer. “It was a great place to be when I went here, and maybe even more so now.”

Miller sees himself in the boys who launched the lab. “They’re real nerds,” he said with a laugh. “I’m proud of them.”

Breitmeyer, 17, and the three other founders — Anders Hartmark, Xander Easton and Iven Chen-Van Dyk — all seniors, spent much of the summer preparing the lab space. They painted its walls with orange and blue stripes, the school’s colors, constructed furniture and built the computers by hand. Breitmeyer estimated it took about 200 hours of work.

“Looking around at the final product makes me so happy,” Breitmeyer said. “It’s not just for ourselves, but for our fellow students and everyone who comes after us.”

Eric Johnson, a member of the 1963 class, tried out the immersive experience Thursday. His journey through the blood system was broadcast on a television screen that others could watch.

“Needless to say, folks,” said Johnson, 73, “this is really cool.”

The student founders envision that all kinds of academic classes will make use of the lab they built. Freshman biology students could “travel” through the human body, art classes could come “paint” in three dimensions and social studies students could “walk around” in other countries.

“We realized we didn’t have much of a way to expand our knowledge of computer science” after taking the advanced computer science classes, Hartmark said. “So we got the idea to make a virtual reality lab that would not only benefit us our senior year but benefit the whole school and the city.”

And as the only virtual reality lab in a city public school, the students want students from other schools to come use it, too. As seniors, they know they’ll only enjoy the lab for a few months.

“Giving back is really a big part of this school,” Breitmeyer said.

A certificate from the mayor’s office recognizes both the efforts of the young Poly students as well as the generosity of the Poly Class of 1963.

City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said during the ribbon-cutting that the project serves as a reminder that the city just has to give students a chance to show everyone what they can do.

“Our youth, they have a wealth of creativity,” she said. “It’s programs like this that keep them active, keep them learning and keep them successful.”

Before receiving the money from the 1963 alumni, the four lab founders had to put together a business proposal, a budget and a “constitution” that will govern how the lab should be used. The deal is contingent on students using the lab for research projects, not just to develop games or spend time on non-educational endeavors.

“Their heads are in the right place, and their hearts certainly are too,” Johnson said. “The whole thing is being structured to continue after these young men graduate.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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