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Google Expeditions offers stunning field trips without leaving school

By Janice Mak
February 5, 2016
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Have you ever taught a science lesson on animal adaptations and wished you could show something more compelling than a photograph or labeled diagram in a textbook? Have you dreamed of teaching about fragile coral reef ecosystems by going for a dive and really looking closely at these amazing creatures?

A few years ago, I never could have imagined that I would be able to show students close-up glimpses of Mars in 3D. But all of this and more is now possible through the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program.  

Available at no cost to schools, the program visits schools around the world and provides everything needed to run virtual reality (VR) expeditions for the day, including cellphones and Google Cardboard, which are affordable VR glasses. The program also includes a short training to guide teachers in leading a virtual trip for their own students.

To get started, submit an interest form to find out if the Expeditions Pioneer Program will be coming to your area. If your school is selected, you'll be treated to a day of virtual reality adventures.

Instant engagement with immersive expeditions

My students recently had the opportunity to experience several of the more than 100 immersive expeditions that the Pioneer Program offers. It was incredible to hear their “oohs” and “ahhs” and see their reactions as they held the VR glasses to their eyes and visited Borneo, the moon, Mars and the Great Barrier Reef. They moved up, down and side to side to take in the 360-degree panoramic vistas.

“Traveling” to these remote locations offered a unique opportunity for them to see the world in a new way. With such a realistic and immersive experience, they could make observations and build a deeper understanding of the remote places we visited. For example, seeing the red dust covering deflated airbags on the Spirit rover gave them a rare glimpse of the geography of Mars.  

“I felt like I was actually feeling what I was seeing,” a student wrote when reflecting on her immersive experience.

In addition to field trips, we also went on some career expeditions. My students experienced the careers of people they might not have ever had a chance to meet, such as the dean of an engineering school, a coder and an airline pilot. They even had the opportunity to see a veterinarian in surgery  — definitely not your typical middle school fare.

Use guiding questions

Each of the expeditions comes with information about the 3D 360-degree image and questions to pose to students while going through the experience. As the Expeditions “tour guide,” I found it most effective to ask questions along the way to engage students’ minds by igniting their curiosity about what they were seeing. When visiting Machu Picchu, I had the students look around and guess where they were in the world. Once we established it was a mountainous location, I provided background information on the culture and exact location, paraphrasing the informational text  and pausing to pose questions, such as, Why do you think the steps were made? Why are there different sizes of homes? What do you think this building was used for and why?

For a moment, I felt like Mrs. Frizzle leading students through a Magic Schoolbus type of field trip, pointing out highlights of the various locations from the lower canopy of the Amazon to the landing place of the Mars Spirit rover.

As with any lesson involving technology, the key element is how well the teacher conducts the lesson. Here are three ways to get the most out of a Google Expeditions lesson:

1. Keep learning outcomes front and center. Awe-inspiring technology like VR definitely adds the ‘“wow” factor to any lesson, but it’s only meaningful when connected to the intended learning outcomes. Use Expeditions to launch a project-based learning unit, topic of study or to deliver content and information about a location.    

2. Prepare content and questions ahead of time. Consider how you’ll use engagement strategies to elicit participation from every student and plan for it. This way, during the virtual experience, you are prepared to guide students to not only see the amazing places, but to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue about what they are viewing. The teacher’s guide to analyzing primary sources from the Library of Congress is a great place to learn how to lead students to observe, reflect and question what they are seeing.

3. Use Expeditions as a jumping off point to learn about VRExplain That Stuff is one website that covers the history of VR and how it works, and there are many others. Doing their own research about virtual reality will give students a deeper understanding of what they are experiencing and allow them to investigate the past, present and future of VR.  

If Google Expeditions doesn't make it to your school, you'll still get a chance to enjoy the excurions. Sign up to try out the beta version of the Expeditions app in your classroom.

Janice Mak is an instructional coach and teacher from Phoenix, Arizona. She helps her students learn through an interdisciplinary and “learning by doing” mindset. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter @jmakaz.

Photo by Maggie Zehring

Want to learn more about using Google Cardboard in the classroom? Read "Virtual reality in the classroom just got affordable," a guide to help you choose the right materials and tools you'll need to offer immersive activities in your classroom.