by Marissa Lorenz
On Thursday, April 2, West Grand Senior Emma Daly was announced as the first-place winner of the University of Wyoming’s first-ever WYTeach Competition, an innovative opportunity that uses Virtual Reality (VR) technology to inspire high school students
to pursue careers in teaching.
The unique scholarship challenge was developed by the University in partnership with Mursion, a company that primarily applies Artificial Intelligence (AI) and VR simulation to provide workplace training.
While education is seeing a growing shortage of teachers across the nation, the WYTeach contest was established, according to a University statement, “as a method to get high school students interested in teaching careers to combat this shortage. The hope is that the exposure will give students the opportunity to practice their professional skills and put their teaching abilities to the test by leading a class of students inside a virtual reality simulation.
“The Mursion system recreates the classroom environment and replicates a real-world teaching experience as closely as possible, making the virtual competition possible,” it continues. “The virtual reality student avatars and teachers can see and hear one another, letting them react and speak in real time. The students also can display behaviors, such as pulling out a cellphone, for the teacher to notice and correct.”
Daly describes the experience as a three-round online competition in which she and other high school students were first asked to design and submit a fully-developed lesson plan. A narrowed group of students were then introduced to the VR classroom and its five middle-school-aged student avatars, interacting with them and providing feedback to their peers.
In the final round of the contest, six finalists were given the opportunity to present a 5-7 minute segment from their submitted lesson plan within the virtual classroom and answer questions from a remote panel of judges, made up of professors from across Wyoming.
In line with the contest theme of “Everyday Heroes,” Daly was able to demonstrate her already-burgeoning lesson development and classroom management skills by teaching the virtual students about “Earth’s Quietest Heroes.”
“I want to go into agricultural education,” Daly explains. “So I talked about the farmers and ranchers and agriculturists of the world–how they’re the quietest heroes because they do their work, they feed people, they put clothes on people’s backs, and–even though it’s one of the hardest jobs in America–you hardly ever see them complain about it.
“I taught [the student avatars] about how one rancher or farmer feeds up to 144 people and how, watching my grandparents–they work long, dedicated hours. Like, right now it’s calving season. And they’re getting up every four hours to check the heifers,” she continues passionately. “I told them, this is where your food comes from. These are the people behind your food and clothing.”
On the simulated classroom, Daly says, “Each student has their own personality. They have their own style and all that different stuff a kid would have. (…) It was weird how much they are like real students. They were real and not real at the same time.”
Daly describes her first interaction with the student avatars in this competition during which she was in the Spanish classroom
of West Grand High School. “I was sitting in front of a wall with Spanish words pasted on it. I started my lesson, and one of the students asked me if I was going to teach them Spanish!
“I said, ‘No! But that’s a good observation,’” she laughs. “It creeped me out a little, to be honest. I forgot they are responding to what they see, too. But I thought it was great. It’s great that, especially now [during COVID-19], student-teachers have a new way to get that experience. It’s good for me now so I have those expectations for when I do student teaching.”
Daly will graduate from West Grand High School in May and plans to attend the University of Wyoming in Laramie, double majoring in ag communication and ag education with the ultimate goal of becoming an ag teacher.
She describes growing up with two parents involved in education, having encouraging teachers, and always enjoying supporting other students, such as in her current role as the intern in ag education at West Grand and when she assisted with the Middle School boys’ basketball team last year.
“I’ve always felt comfortable in a school. I love agriculture, and I love the classes I’ve taken in ag. I love all of my experiences through agriculture education, including from both [sets of] my grandparents, who are ranchers and farmers,” Daly explains. “I thought, I love this subject. I love telling others about it. Why not give the next generation of students the experience that I had?”
“Emma Daly is truly a force to be reckoned with,” says West Grand Ag Program Instructor Jacob Walter. “She has discovered her passion for teaching and has made every effort to pursue it with rigor and tenacity.
“Winning the University of Wyoming Teaching Contest was a direct result of her hard work and determination in a very challenging competition. Emma is pursuing to serve the state of Colorado as a State FFA Officer and then plans to attend college at the University of Wyoming to obtain her degree in agricultural education. I have no doubt that she will go very far in life, and I cannot wait to see the great things she will accomplish!”
It was in pursuing her interest in ag education through visiting, applying to, and then following the University of Wyoming School of Education on Facebook that Daly first learned of the simulation-style scholarship opportunities.
She participated in an earlier event in the fall, geared specifically toward students interested in agriculture education. She finished second place in that contest. The scholarship monies from both competitions are applicable at the University of Wyoming or Wyoming’s community colleges.
“I really hope other students in our community will be interested in [the WYTeach scholarship contest] and will participate,” Daly offers in perfect teacher style. “This is the first year. It will only grow and keep offering more opportunities.”
To learn more about the University of Wyoming College of Education, go to uwyo.edu/education or follow them on Facebook. To discover more about the WYTeach scholarship opportunities, go to www.uwyo. edu/tei/wyteach or watch an AI classroom experience by searching Mursion classroom simulation on YouTube.com.
by Marissa Lorenz