'Space station' lands in Mount Laurel, wows visitors

Palmyra Cove’s Peter Dorofy stands as David Spang, college provost, tries virtual reality.

With all the writing on its sides, the motor home sitting in a Mount Laurel parking lot could have been a bookmobile.

But this was a magic bus. Inside, outer space was beckoning, and with it a path to knowing Earth, the moon, and the stars.

With career opportunities burgeoning in the geosciences, mathematics, technology, and engineering, Rowan College at Burlington County and Palmyra Cove Nature Park have turned a humble RV into what they are billing as a "virtual reality laboratory."

And on Wednesday, they were showing it off at the college.

"We're creating a geoscience degree," David Spang, vice president and provost of the community college, told reporters gathered at the vehicle.

As part of a long-term strategy for drawing students into the program, Spang said, the 30-foot vehicle has been equipped with a satellite remote-sensing laboratory, an inflatable planetarium, a "global learning" laboratory, and - for the wow factor - virtual reality headsets for viewing Earth from a simulated space station high above the planet.

Pitched to students from grammar school through high school, the rolling laboratory can travel to schools and also serve as part of the program at Palmyra Cove, a 250-acre nature and teaching center on the Delaware River operated by the Burlington County Bridge Commission.

About 5,000 students visit the cove each year, said Peter Dorofy, its director of science technology and education, "and most have never experienced virtual reality."

"But it's going to happen," he said. "And we want their first virtual reality experience to be a geoscience experience - seeing Earth from space."

John Moore, the center's director for geoscience and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, agreed.

"Look at how many people work at NASA because of Star Wars," he said. "It's like that."

Only time will tell if the lab's wow factor steers large numbers of young people into the college, or into programs such as Rowan University's new School of Earth and Environment, which will open next year.

But Freeholder Mary Ann O'Brien - who earlier had said at the news conference that students can matriculate at the county college for three years, study for one year at Rowan University, and earn a bachelor's degree from Rowan, "all for just $30,000" - seemed dazzled by the experience.

"Oh, my God, I'm aboard a spaceship," she exclaimed, moments after donning a pair of virtual reality goggles.

"Oh, wow," she said, then fell silent as she turned her head to look out a simulated spaceship window at a giant, rotating, three-dimensional Earth.

The real-time clouds and weather patterns she was seeing had been downloaded into the image hours earlier. These included the fading tropical storm over the eastern United States that had turned the morning sky above the RV gray.

"Look to your left," Dorofy instructed, and as O'Brien did so, she was startled.

"Are these robots?" she cried out, and laughed when Dorofy explained that the motionless humanoids that appeared to be sitting at desks next to her in the "space station" were there to amuse and intrigue young visitors.

"This is fabulous," she said.

While the virtual reality experience is designed to last only a minute or two, Moore and Dorofy said the laptop computers at adjacent desks contain experiments scaled to various grade levels.

They also pointed out an array of traditional microscopes for studying such things as the microinvertebrates found in water.

"Our vision is that this is just the tip of the iceberg," Moore said. "We hope to keep adding things that will point students to all the fields they can explore."

doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841 @doreillyinq

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