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“In my experience,” says Murthy-lab member Matt McGill (Neurobiology ’17), “especially in middle school, it can be very hard to get excited about a subject if you’re not seeing or experiencing what you’re learning first-hand.” So he and classmate Kelly Zhang (HDRB, ’17) founded Dreamporte, a student-run non-profit that uses the latest virtual technology to “bridge experiential disparities among students, get them excited about learning, dreaming bigger, and looking at things in new ways.”

Dreamporte’s weekly afterschool program at the Rindge Upper School in Cambridge stimulates student interest and imagination by supplementing instruction, discussion, and hands-on activities with 360° videos displayed on Oculus Rift 3-D goggles. To appreciate biomes, for example, 6th-8th graders donned Oculus headsets to visit Antarctica, their points-of-view positioned smack in the middle of a penguin colony. “It was amazing,” McGill recalls, “I was astounded by that video and the kids loved it.” After several immersive videos of distinct ecosystems, McGill assigned students fictional biomes and asked them to design and draw an animal adapted to that environment. During another lesson on ancient civilizations, students virtually toured the pyramids of Giza on camel back, then “returned” to the classroom to build their own Mayan temples.

“It’s really fun to watch kids come out of their shells as they get to know you and the technology,” says McGill. As a peer and youth tutor throughout high school, McGill observed, “It’s so easy to get left behind, to lose interest in something and it’s not your fault; maybe it’s not your favorite subject or no one’s telling you why it’s important.” Dreamporte’s immersive virtual experiences draw reluctant learners into diverse subject matter: “Everyone feels like they’re on the same page because they’re all seeing it in front of them.”

McGill plans to pursue neurobiology in graduate school, after he wraps up his trail-tracking research on black carpenter ants. “I fell in love with research here in the Murthy Lab, so I think that’s the track for me…but it can get lonely sometimes when you’re working on your own project on the bench,” he admits. Teaching for Dreamporte has provided social balance and perspective that compliment and energize his research.

While its afterschool program continues to thrive, Dreamporte hopes to expand its team of volunteers and eventually package its content and curriculum into a web platform available to educators across the country. Encouraged by its success thus far and confident in its promising application of new technology, Dreamporte proceeds steadily toward its ultimate goal: to reach as many students and classrooms as possible, virtually and indelibly. For more information about Dreamporte or to offer your support, visit http://dreamporte.org/.