Virtual Field Trips Open Doors for Multimedia Lessons

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 10, 2009 6 min read
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When Scott Mandel visited the British Museum last summer, he knew the displays of Egyptian mummies and treasures would captivate students in his ancient-civilizations class at Pacoima Middle School in Los Angeles. The exhibit inspired the veteran teacher to plan a trip to the museum for his students. This time, however, he never had to leave the classroom.

By tapping in to the museum’s interactive Web galleries and video tours, Mr. Mandel gave his students a close-up view of the vast collection of artifacts, and even allowed them to play a version of a game enjoyed by children in North Africa more than 2,000 years ago.

“I can’t take my students to London, as much as I’d love to,” said Mr. Mandel, the creator of TeachersHelpingTeachers, a Web site that advises teachers on how to find and use quality curriculum materials on the Internet. “A virtual field trip can take you anywhere at any time, whether it’s back in the past,” or into outer space or microscopic worlds.

As schools reduce the number of off-campus excursions for students to deal with budget restrictions or limited instructional time, many educators are planning virtual field trips. The widespread availability of the Internet and other tech tools that allow interactive presentations has made it easier to let students explore the Amazon, take part in far-away experiments, and even simulate space travel.

Nighttime Tour

“I’m at the age where I could be retired, but I’m so excited about how we can bring the world into the classroom,” said science teacher Sandy Scharf, who launched a series of electronic field trips for students at Edgar Middle School in Metuchen, N.J.

The NASA Jet Propulsion Lab offers a virtual tour of its robotics program.

Ms. Scharf received a grant from the local education foundation last year to buy a multimedia cart, complete with a wide-screen television, DVD player, Web camera, and interactive software so she could offer the trips for students throughout the school.

Now, Ms. Scharf manages an elaborate schedule of cyberspace expeditions at her school.

In the last few weeks, for example, Edgar students measured elevations of topographical features on the moon, dissected a cow’s eye via a link to the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Mich., and took a virtual tour of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Late one school night, some 40 students returned to Ms. Scharf’s classroom to get a tour of the Great Barrier Reef from a diver on site in northeastern Australia. The diver showed them species of coral and other sea life and explained the complex ecosystem. Throughout the presentation, he answered their questions in real time.

Many of the “trips” are free, but Ms. Scharf doesn’t mind paying out of her grant fund for some of them.

Resources for Online Field Trips

The Virtual Smithsonian: Includes online tours of exhibits in the museums of natural history, American history, and art in Washington.

Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA: Allows participants to choose a virtual character and take a trip through an animated museum, mission control, and a robotics lab.

National Geographic Expeditions Online: Features a database of lesson plans, online activities, and maps tied to the national geography standards.

Ball State University Electronic Field Trips: Offers live and archived video tours of a variety of topics and destinations, including the Florida Everglades, gray whale migrations from Southern California to Mexico, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Includes low-cost Web resources for each lesson.

Colonial Williamsburg: Programs for grades 4-8 with live broadcasts on public-television stations and archived video presentations on the Web highlighting people, places, and events throughout history.

“Sometimes it costs us $100 or $200 a session, but we would pay more than that for a bus and to get into” a museum or science center, she pointed out.

Oh, The Places They Will Go

Such offerings are most effective when they tell a compelling story and are set in a location that has educational value and a staff committed to teaching, according to Jacquie Bradburn, the assistant director of electronic field trips at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. The university’s education department began developing electronic programs in 1996, when educators started hooking up to the Internet only to find a lack of educational resources, Ms. Bradburn said.

The university has since created 67 free or low-cost trips for grades K-12 that correspond with lessons written by teachers. The programs, hosted by K-12 students and researchers, include commentary and film tours from historic sites, national parks, and museums.

“Because the kids aren’t going to be able to go a lot of the places we’ve been, we bring the location to them,” said Ms. Bradburn. “We’ve been to Alaska, Hawaii, Belize, and all points in between. ”

More than 20,000 students, on average, participate in each trip, which might take them to the Smithsonian Kite Festival in Washington or whale watching off the coast of Mexico. An episode produced in 2007 explored Newton’s law of motion as applied to race cars at the Indianapolis Speedway. Another investigated fossils and flora in the Grand Canyon.

The live productions—offered four or five times each school year—let students ask questions by webcam or e-mail and participate in online discussions. The trips are archived and include online lesson plans and resources that can be accessed later.

Ball State gets grant funding to pay for the productions and has partnerships with public television stations, the National Park Service, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which all provide expertise and access to the sites.

A live production on the Buffalo Soldiers scheduled for this week, for example, is sponsored by the park service and the African-American Experience Fund. Experts on the frontier army of African-American troops will give presentations from historic sites in Texas and other parts of the country.

A park ranger describes wildlife as part of a Ball State University field-trip program.

The thousands of field trips available on the Internet vary in their complexity and quality, offering basics such as still photos and text or high-end video and interactive features. Many, however, need only simple tech tools that are commonly available in most schools, experts say.

Last week at Carver Elementary School in Birmingham, Ala., 4th graders talked to a scientist at nasa on a television fitted with two-way video and audio. The 8,100-student district has also taken students on “visits” to far-away Civil War sites and local gardens without ever leaving their classrooms.

“All we need is an Internet connection. It’s very accessible,” said Katie Blair, a 4th grade teacher at Carver. “We sit down with our curriculum and figure out how [the virtual field trips] can enhance learning, then we look to see what trips are available.”

Not everyone in the community is a fan of the virtual trips, however. In a letter to the editor in the local newspaper, a Birmingham-area resident questioned the value of the program. Books, the writer argued, have long provided opportunities for students to imagine travel through time and across the universe. And given the amount of time children spend in front of television and computer screens, the writer argued, schools should not boast of providing more of such opportunities.

Virtual vs. On-Site Visits

A number of schools and districts are cutting back on off-campus outings. But electronic trips are not intended to take the place of traditional field trips, which allow children to explore local museums and parks. Many educators agree that well-planned field trips can generate rich experiences that are tied to the curriculum.

In some cases, though, the impact of the simulated versions is greater than an actual site visit. An evaluation of a Ball State trip to Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, for example, found that students who participated in the electronic program could recall more information about the site and its history than their peers who visited there.

“With the electronic trips, there are often additional curricular materials students can use, and kids don’t have all the distractions of a bus trip” and following with a crowd, Ms. Bradburn of Ball State said.

And technology allows teachers to plan the special events more frequently, she added.

At Carver Elementary in Birmingham, for example, Loretta Donald’s class had an online visit last week with a scientist at NASA’s Mississippi Space Center. The students learned to design patches just as astronauts do to commemorate their missions. And they studied features of space crafts and the solar system as they prepared for an actual visit to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., later this year.

“This is a more interactive way of learning about the solar system ...and talking about the different things you would see if you travel in outer space,” Ms. Donald said. The ability to discuss the information with a scientist, and ask questions of an expert throughout the lesson, is particularly useful, she said.

“It doesn’t replace a regular field trip, but it’s a good addition to what we’re doing in class.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Virtual Field Trips Open Doors for Multimedia Lessons


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