DENTON (UNT), Texas — As Texas and other states across the country face a critical teacher shortage, the University of North Texas is training its students through immersive technology to meet the demand.
Through UNT’s Teach North Texas program, undergraduate students in the College of Science or those majoring in information technology are able to earn a teaching certificate alongside their degree. The innovative program prepares participants for teaching secondary level mathematics and science.
“With COVID-19 having caused significant disruption to education, many students have suffered from a pandemic learning loss, especially in STEM courses,” said Teach North Texas co-director Rudi Thompson. “At UNT, we are placing an emphasis on developing teachers who are not only adept at lesson and classroom management but also are able to respond to their students’ individual needs.”
To prepare student instructors for classroom interactions, Teach North Texas uses a mixed-reality teaching environment in its Mursion Lab. Mursion uses a mixed-reality simulation featuring virtual avatars who respond in various ways to actions by the user.
The lab, partly funded by the Sid W. Richardson Foundation and the Caruth Foundation through the UNT Foundation, utilizes Mursion, Inc.’s virtual reality training software to enhance workplace skills for a variety of industries.
For Teach North Texas, UNT students practice classroom management and lesson content in a simulated classroom.
“The avatars keep you on your toes. You never know what they’re going to do,” said Leilani Fielding, a senior mathematics student. “Each session is truly different. We also can watch previous sessions to see how to modify our responses into what will work best for real students in a real classroom.”
Janel Madeley is a master teacher and lecturer with UNT’s Teach North Texas program. She serves as an observer for sessions in the Mursion Lab.
“Instead of teaching ‘if this happens,’ we can create a scenario in the Mursion Lab,” Madeley said. “Using the immersive environment, our students can prepare for almost any situation, sparing them from the uncertainties of real classroom trial and error. It’s a safe space where they can practice being responsive and proactive.”
The Mursion Lab provides students the opportunity to learn new skills, practice classroom lessons and identify areas of improvement as they prepare to become teachers.
Student instructors are required to create 10-minute lesson plans for their lab session. In the lab’s high school setting there are five avatars to engage with — each with their own name, personality and background that respond to UNT students in real time with genuine emotion. For example, “Carlos” has trouble with math and wants to be an artist, but his family expects him to take over their auto-repair shop. “Angela” finds most of her classroom lessons beneath her since she has attended space and math camps. She also hates being called on by teachers. These are personality details UNT student instructors must figure out on their own.
Cindy Watson also observes sessions in the Mursion Lab as a master teacher in the program and a principal lecturer in UNT’s College of Science.
“During observations, I’m looking for the relationships they are building,” Watson said. “Children will be much more engaged in the lesson if they have a connection with their teacher. We see that our students who go through the lab are more comfortable in the classroom when redirecting kids who may misbehave or helping with a child who’s struggling with classwork.”
Both Madeley and Watson note they see clear development in the student instructors who go through the lab. These vital lessons transfer to the classrooms UNT students observe and teach in throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area as part of Teach North Texas. They begin by focusing on how lessons are prepared and scripted. As students move through the program, the focus turns to implementation and responsiveness in the classroom.
“We see our students gain so much confidence and become leaders,” Watson said. “They’re essentially second-year teachers when they graduate.”
Upon completing the Teach North Texas program, students meet the requirements to test for teacher certification in their designated field. According to the program’s co-director, Rudi Thompson, Teach North Texas student graduates have a 100% hire rate.
“The Mursion Lab gives our students a safe way to ‘fail forward.’ They can make mistakes or errors in judgement and then our observers can walk them through what they could have done instead,” Thompson said. “The program — in addition to the observation and teaching time they spend in real classrooms — really prepares them to be exceptional teachers.”
The Mursion Lab at UNT is available for immersive training simulations in counseling, coaching, teaching or any situation requiring high stakes interpersonal skills. For questions or to request a demonstration, please contact Rudi Thompson or Ali Degraffenreed with Teach North Texas.