Virtual Field Trips: Maybe Even Better than the Real Thing

December 04, 2013
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

When I was a kid in rural Iowa, my mom gave me a book with an exquisite cover of a delicate-looking boy standing on the surface of some kind of bumpy, faraway planet. Intrigued, I dove in to that fantastical, whimsical story. It is still one of my favorite books—probably because of that drawing of the boa constrictor. Of course I’m talking about the beloved book, The Little Prince.

So it was with just a smidge of jealousy that I read about a Google virtual field trip dedicated to the 75th anniversary of that book. The field trip was to a hangar in Switzerland where three scientists/explorers were building a plane that is powered only by the sun.

Kids from three schools across the country (one in rural Nebraska, one in Mountain View in California, and one in Harlem in New York) joined the scientists from their classrooms on November 4, 2013 to hear about this amazing feat. Using Google hangout, the students listened to the scientists, and saw the amazing airplane that, according to the scientists, no one thought they could build.

Best of all they were able to ask questions, and see for themselves, virtually, what gets these scientists so excited.

“Why does the sun give us energy?” asked a girl in Harlem. “How fast will the planes go?” asked a boy in Nebraska, and of course, “How do you build all that cool stuff?” 

“These are beautiful challenges for this new world,” one of the scientists told the children. The Little Prince couldn’t have said it any better.

Google launched its Connected Classroom because, as they say on their website, education funding has been cut, making it difficult for students to explore the world outside their classrooms. If students can’t go on field trips, why don’t we bring the field trips to them?

Google is hosting virtual field trips nearly every week. It’s easy to join, and all you need is an internet connection. Past field trips have included learning about making the perfect pasta in Naples, Italy and Holocaust remembrance with survivor, Bob Behr. Check out the calendar for upcoming trips. 

Of course, Google is not alone in this effort.

Scholastic offers a Virtual Field Trip to Ellis Island, a guided webcast that takes students on the same path that immigrants trekked more than a century ago. Teachers will appreciate the related activities the site provides.

The Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling Jesuit University has created e-Missions for students. In one mission, a volcano on the island of Montserrat is about to erupt, and a group of sixth graders must determine what kind of damage may occur. Via video-conference, an adult pleads for their help in carrying out evacuation plans.

Ranging from cyber-surgery to storm tracking, the missions require a bit more training and preparation for teachers. The activities pair grade-appropriate missions with state-specific educational goals, and strive to improve students’ critical thinking skills through teamwork, communication, and problem-solving.

These amazing options remind me of the filmmakers who created a “Discovery Channel” for Heiltsuk First Nations Youth in Canada. The filmmakers planted a camera deep in the Artic rain forest with a live feed into the children’s classrooms. It allowed them to eavesdrop on grizzlies catching salmon and birds building a nest, among other amazing nature. The kids were so enthralled that they’d race to the classroom just to watch for the mere possibility that something might happen. It also piqued their interest in the nature surrounding them and their own heritage, which was slipping away from them.  

Technology may have its downsides, but it can also do things like this—and in that there is hope. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” The kids in Nebraska or Harlem or Canada are getting a glimpse of those possibilities.