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High School Students Win Awards in UW Teaching Competition

April 30, 2021
split screen photo with woman on the top and virtual students on the bottom
WYTeach finalist McKenzie Morgan, from Lyman High School, presents a lesson to a virtual reality classroom with Mursion avatars via a live video feed. (UW Photo)

Emma Daly, a student at West Grand High School in Kremmling, Colo., was named the first-place winner of the inaugural WYTeach contest -- a University of Wyoming program. Daly received a $500 scholarship for her winning presentation.

Daly presented her lesson, “Earth’s Quietest Heroes,” from her home classroom to a virtual class of avatars via a live video feed April 2. The contest used innovative virtual reality (VR) software from Mursion that allowed participants to experience what it is like to be a teacher.

UW Assistant Lecturer Lindsey Freeman and Colby Gull, managing director of the UW Trustees Education Initiative (TEI), developed the contest as a way to combat a teacher shortage that is being felt in the state and across the country.

“The teacher shortage in Wyoming is not as dire in some other states but, in examining enrollment in teacher preparation programs and the intentions of high school students to enter the teaching profession, one can speculate that Wyoming’s teacher shortage is on the horizon,” Freeman says.

Although there are other teaching competitions, the contest at UW stands out for providing a more realistic teaching experience. Most teaching contests see participants presenting lesson plans as opposed to teaching their lessons to a classroom of unpredictable students. Using VR to provide an authentic classroom environment is what helps set WYTeach above the others.

“We have to start purposefully recruiting to get the very best people into classrooms, and WYTeach is one way to get high school students excited about the field. With this contest, we can help students experience some of the great things about teaching,” Gull says. “It is a great feeling when we see them ‘get it’ while using Mursion. Those are the students we hope to enroll in our teacher preparation programs at UW.”

Overall, the inaugural competition featured 48 participants from six different schools.

McKenzie Morgan, a Lyman High School student, placed second in the competition and earned a $300 scholarship for her lesson, “Natural Selection.” Third place and a $200 scholarship were secured by Jennifer Michaels, a student at Thunder Basin High School in Gillette, who presented the lesson, “Graphing a Function by Applying Derivative Test.”

Daly, who has experienced leading a classroom in person during internships, says using Mursion provided an enhanced experience.

“I had a student talk poorly to another student. I had never had an experience like that in person, so I was not fully prepared, but it was a good challenge to have because it will be a recurring problem when I do become a teacher myself,” she says.

“Mursion allowed us to move from simply presenting material to actually teaching, asking high-level questions, interacting with students and assessing for learning,” Gull says. “Having the VR technology is a game-changer for teacher preparation and for teaching competitions. This takes the teaching events to a new level, making the experience more engaging and authentic for the participants.”

High school students often think about teaching through the students’ eyes; WYTeach gives them the opportunity to think about it from the teacher’s perspective, Freeman says.

“The contest allowed students to see themselves as teachers through authentic experiences with the Mursion avatars,” Freeman adds. “It also helped them to realize that they possess many of the qualities that make a good teacher while analyzing and discussing their performance in the competition with their peers and judges.”

There are big plans for the competition’s future. Freeman and Gull plan to run the contest for high school students again next year and also have been discussing the possibility of developing a collegiate-level version of WYTeach with Wyoming community colleges. The duo also has been working with FFA and Family, Career and Community Leaders of America to take the WYTeach competition nationwide.

The contest was made possible through a collaboration with Mursion, which donated the cost of running the VR simulations for the competition and supplied funds to purchase prizes for participants. The Ellbogen Foundation, UW Foundation and UW College of Education all contributed the scholarship money that was awarded to the top three contestants. UW TEI supported Freeman’s idea for the contest and helped make connections so that the innovation would become a reality.

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