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VR project transitions 8th graders to high school

A team of Niwot high schoolers created a virtual tour for incoming freshmen.
Students test virtual reality project at the SVVSD Design Guild and STEM Fair.

Students from Niwot High School created a virtual reality simulation to help eighth-graders transition into high school and hope to expand it to all St. Vrain Valley high schools.

Transitioning from eighth grade to high school can be stressful for some students. These students have many questions such as, “What are my peers like?” “What if I get lost?” “What do classes look like?” 

These are all normal questions but are not always easy to answer. The project was a partnership between UCHealth, SVVSD and Rendever — a virtual reality company that focuses on overcoming social isolation for seniors.

Two years ago a team of students from Niwot High School, which included Violet Oliver, Yash Desphande, Kabir Raina and Reese Wieder — who attends Westview Middle School — wanted to explore the best ways to bridge the gap between social-emotional health and technology in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Oliver said. 

The team identified that students were experiencing anxiety at increased levels and had lost some connection with peers.

“We wanted to try to (reduce anxiety) in our schools and our communities by fostering empathy and joy and connection,” said Oliver, who is a junior at Niwot High School. 

Mental Health of America screened more than 4 million people in 2021 for depression and anxiety. Seventy-six percent of those people “scored positive or with moderate to severe symptoms of a mental health condition,” the website states. 

Instead of focusing on the negative side of psychology, these Niwot students wanted to find a solution that boosted joy and empathy and reduced anxiety in their peers. 

“That connection point services just about everything we do. For a long time, psychology has focused traditionally on healing the negative or focusing on disorders or things that are not going well. It hasn’t focused on some of the things that create a life of vibrancy,” said Dr. Justin Ross, a psychologist at UCHealth, who mentored students on the project.

Last year students focused on learning about different activities and environments that could create empathy or reduce anxiety such as therapeutic horseback riding, skiing, hiking and a day in the life of someone with ADHD. Last year’s projects taught the students the basic concepts of what would be needed to create an empathetic virtual reality film.

At the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, students decided to tackle a project that included a nervous time of their lives — transitioning from middle school to high school. 

They began by interviewing peers, taking a tour of the school and identifying some of the best spots to hang out at school. 

Oliver’s team debuted the VR simulation at the district’s Design Guild and STEM Fair on May 9 at the Innovation Center. While their target audience was eighth graders, anyone was able to experience the simulation.

“There was a significant reduction in anxiety levels just looking at a map of Niwot High School versus actually touring around in the virtual reality. We saw anxiety levels reduced by 24%,” Oliver said. 

For Ross, this project was about celebrating humans helping humans.

“It was taking something that has traditionally been of concern and looking at ways of implementing positive psychology and wellbeing practices that help people feel their best and function at their best,” Ross said. 

Oliver said the group will continue the project again next school year. She hopes to build a virtual reality library of other St. Vrain Valley schools and present the tours to middle schoolers across the district.

“You are consistently ideating and creating something to try to make it better and better for your school and for your community. It’s a really cool representation of how the scientific method can go from ideas in your head to products, to helping people,” Oliver said.