How One School District Uses Virtual Field Trips to Save Lots of Time, Money

By Marva Hinton — March 25, 2016 7 min read
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School field trips. Many of us remember getting a permission slip signed, boarding an activity bus and heading to some museum or maybe a state park excited to spend a day outside of the classroom.

But today, due to time and/or budget constraints, more school districts are turning to virtual field trips, which allow students to “visit” places like the ocean floor without leaving their classrooms.

Dacia Jones’ official title is district science specialist for Durham Public Schools in Durham, N.C. But her unofficial title is something like virtual field trip coordinator for the district. She describes these events as “an in-class experience to an out-of-this-world place” and plans more than 100 of these trips every year primarily for K-5 students in 30 Durham schools. But, she says, typically students in more than 200 schools across North America watch along with them. All of these virtual field trips are filmed and archived so schools can watch them anytime.

Dacia says planning these trips can be daunting for a teacher doing it the first time, so she recommends they check out the trips provided by Discovery Education. She’s part of the company’s network of educators and shares her expertise on using digital media in the classroom with more than 1 million educators in North America.

We recently talked to her via phone about her work. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation.

Generally, do virtual field trips take less time and cost less than traditional field trips?

I don’t pay for any virtual field trip. For us, they’re absolutely free except if we purchase anything for the kids to be doing while the field trip happens. And you’re right about planning for lunches and getting buses. They do take a lot less time. We have some teachers that take a virtual field trip every week. And we do have some soft data that says kids are in attendance more on the date of a virtual field trip because they don’t want to miss it.

How do you fund these experiences if you don’t pay for them?

All you need is a cell phone and Internet. All of our classrooms have computers. There is no money involved with these at all. When I put out on Twitter that I need a robots expert to talk with a group of kids, and Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas says absolutely, then he just volunteers his 30 minutes to talk with our kids. There are places that will advertise [that] for $150, your kids can talk to one of our engineers for 30 minutes for a virtual field trip. We don’t have that money. I find things that they can do that don’t cost money.

As far as technology, it is a computer and Internet. You have to have a camera on your computer, but any computer that’s been built in the last two years automatically has cameras. The only expense that we come into is when we do an interactive one, which is where the kids are watching the person talk and then they’re doing something at their desk. A couple of weeks ago we were at a coal mine in Arizona and I wanted the kids to be able to have rocks and minerals in their hands while the people on the virtual field trip were talking about how to dust the rocks and read the minerals. I made sure that we found enough rocks and mineral samples so that every kid in the district could have one to hold while they were talking.

What are some other examples of virtual field trips?

In Durham Public Schools in the last two-and-a-half years, we have visited places like the Mayo Clinic. We’ve been inside volcanoes. We’ve been on the International Space Station. We’ve been to Anne Frank’s home. We’ve been in the Sistine Chapel where the docent actually showed how Michelangelo laid on scaffolding and did the paintings. When they finish talking to the docent, the kids go under their tables and the teachers have taped paper under there and the kids begin to draw with crayons to sort of understand how taxing that was on the artist. We tie that to gravity. Some of the most exciting ones have been to the Galapagos Islands. We’ve been to Antarctica. That just goes to show there’s really no place we can’t go. We’ve been on Robert Ballard’s boat. Robert Ballard is the guy who’s trying to lift the Titanic. Anywhere the kids and teachers are asking to go, I’m out there trying to find ways to get that into the classroom.

This new piece that we’re adding I’m calling it STEM Moments where kids are talking to older people that had STEM jobs but now are in nursing homes or retirement centers where people are really not paying much attention to them. I’m going in and doing interviews and taking personal histories and then tying it to a field trip so kids can see what grandpas and grandmas did back in the day.

Click below to hear Dacia describe how a virtual field trip at an amusement park became a little too real for some students.

So how does promoting these field trips tie in to your job?

I am the district science specialist, so my job is to promote science in all classrooms, model lessons for teachers, provide PD, but I’m such a fan of virtual field trips that I know they enhance the learning in any classroom. None of it is part of my job, but it’s embedded into everything that I do. Every month, I create what we call a STEM challenge for all K5 students. They build something and then at the end of that build the next month they and their parents come to a “shark tank” like the ABC television show and they present their projects to these “sharks” and talk about how they built this. And, then we Skype or have a virtual field trip with someone famous. So, for this one coming up we’re skyping with HGTV with Kayleen McCabe, who is the TV host for Renegade Renovators. In April, we’re going to have a live show with Alton Brown from the Food Network. He’s going to do a live show at one school and the entire district’s going to be watching that live stream, and that’s going to be their virtual field trip. I reach out to celebrities. We have skyped with Kristi Yamaguchi and Michael Phelps, the Mythbusters, Will.i.am, anybody I can pull in that is a great role model, and I can connect them to science in some way. There needs to be another person like me to do this full time, but I can’t see my job being done without the virtual field trip part of it. My teachers will be very upset now if we got rid of virtual field trips.

How long have you been involved with virtual field trips?

I guess my first one was when I was first teaching, and I had my 1st graders pack their suitcases. They came to the classroom, and I virtually turned my room into China. That was back in the day 20 years ago. But using technology to do it, it’s been about six-and-a-half or seven years. Obviously, they have progressed greatly because they get bigger and bigger. On New Year’s Day, I went to Philadelphia, my husband and I, I was presenting at a STEM conference. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I could head out to Valley Forge and see if they would Skype with our kids. We went out there. We made some videos. My husband does a lot of filming with me. My kids know me by the name Dr. Drizzle. I have videos and YouTube up on science. So I filmed some video from Valley Forge and contacted Valley Forge after the fact to see if they would do a virtual field trip. They had never done one, but they were so excited. They’re a national park. They learned how to do it on their end. Then in February all of our students skyped with Valley Forge and found out why it was a called an iron forge and what Washington did while he was there. We’re kind of teaching other places how to do it so they can reach out to schools.

As a child growing up in North Carolina, I remember going to all of the museums in Raleigh and to places like Wilmington. Do you feel like kids will miss out on the experience of actually seeing something in person?

No and yes, because we encourage all of our teachers to also take regular field trips, but we can’t afford those. And, our policies here are that everybody goes. We can’t leave kids behind because of the inability to pay. We don’t have those types of funds to send them out to Cape Hatteras and all these places. They may get to do some in-town field trips. [Our] bottom line is if you can go on a real field trip, absolutely, but we’re also going to supplement with all of these other experiences because none of our kids can go to the International Space Station, and none of them can go to Maui to a volcano, and none of them can go to Antarctica and talk with scientists. We’re just providing those other experiences for kids that right now they have no access to. I don’t think places that bring in kids need to worry that virtual field trips are going to put them out of business. Our kids in Durham will tell you that they’ve been on 25 field trips this year, and 23 of those were virtual. But, to them, it was a real experience.

Photo: Dacia Jones leads students on a virtual field trip to the International Space Station. (Courtesy Dacia Jones)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.