The fifth graders were assigned a case with few clues. If this place could talk, they were asked, what would it tell you about the people who were here a century ago?

The students stood in a field with long, matted grass. A thicket of trees encircled much of the site. To the north, they could see scattered industrial projects and commercial buildings; from the south, they could hear trains lumbering past. On the far end of the property, a large bell was visible near a reconstructed smokehouse. Near the center of the field sat a two-story brick building with boarded-up windows.

And then, slowly, other clues accrued—and history came to life.

The landscape changed for the students. Through the use of mobile devices and an augmented-reality app, they could see the desolate field in front of them layered with computer-generated images of structures that had once stood there. The fifth graders soon realized they were on a former school campus. Yet that was just the beginning of their understanding.

“The campus was mostly missing,” says David Hicks, a professor in the Virginia Tech School of Education, “so we decided to present the what and the who as historical mysteries, with the students acting as junior detectives. We wanted to use new technologies to make the invisible past visible again. That’s how CI-Spy was born.”

Hicks was part of a team of historians, computer scientists, and fifth-grade teachers who, with National Science Foundation funding, designed and developed the app, which also provided historical documents, photographs, and oral-history interviews. Students then used a set of guiding questions to analyze the material.

The CI-Spy app was named for the former school—the Christiansburg Institute. Founded in 1866 with the mission of educating the children of former slaves in the Appalachian region of Virginia, the school began as a one-room rented log cabin. By the turn of the century, it had expanded into a sprawling, 185-acre campus with more than a dozen structures, including classroom buildings, a dormitory, a woodshop, and a gymnasium.

Generations of African Americans studied there under the leadership of such noted educators as Booker T. Washington. Then, after a century of serving as the principal segregated school for African-American students across southwestern Virginia, the Christiansburg Institute closed its doors in 1966, following desegregation of the area’s schools.

“We didn’t tell the students that the Christiansburg Institute was a segregated school, because we thought it would be more powerful for them to discover that for themselves,” Hicks says. “CI-Spy helped the students understand how the separate-but-equal doctrine—particularly segregated schooling—affected their own community.”

Over time, most of the school’s buildings were sold or torn down. Today, the Edgar A. Long Building is the lone classroom facility still standing, and the smokehouse has been converted into a small museum. Christiansburg Institute, Inc. and the Christiansburg Institute Alumni Association—both of which partnered with the development team in creating CI-Spy—are working to raise funds for renovations and, eventually, educational programming.

“The mixed-reality technologies allowed us to layer in information to help the fifth graders hone their detective skills,” Hicks says. “And, we hope, the hidden histories that revealed themselves gave the students an appreciation for the lives of African Americans during those years of segregation.”