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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Internet Explorers: Virtual Field Trips Are More Than Just Money Savers

These online adventures emphasize student participation and standards-based curriculum.
By Kara Platoni

Dog's Life:

Through the GoNorth! virtual field trip, students can follow the progress of a real-life dogsled journey. Here, polar huskies look ahead to Sweden's Torneträsk Lake.

Credit: PolarHusky.com

Virtual field trips debuted in the early days of the Internet with an awesome promise: They'd take students to exotic places no school bus could, they'd be a boon to low-income classes without a travel budget, and nobody would get stuck in the car listening to the umpteenth verse of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall."

Their execution was often underwhelming, though: Some were more entertainment than education, and others were just lecture outlines gussied up with primitive computer graphics and the occasional hyperlink.

Now, at last, technology is catching up to virtual field trips' possibilities. A new generation of trips is merging highly interactive Web sites with engaging storytelling, vibrant art, and curricula tied to national standards, creating a compelling way to explore the natural world without leaving campus.

Here are our top four picks -- and you can't beat the admission price: free.

Blue Zones Quest

"We have a big real-life mystery that we're trying to solve," says Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner: Why do people in some parts of the world live much longer than others?

In a sort of real-time design-your-own adventure, students vote online for nearly every move a team of doctors and demographers makes as it investigates the longest-lived populations on the planet. Past treks took the team to Japan and Costa Rica; next, they'll voyage to an Aegean island where the percentage of people who reach age ninety is four times higher than in the United States.

While the team is on the island, students will choose which elements of the local culture they want the scientists to study. Is the locals' secret to long life their spiritual practices, perhaps, or the herbal teas they drink? Is it their diet, or how far they walk each day? At the end of the trip, students will vote on the eight factors that contribute most to longevity. "We'll harness the wisdom of the crowd," Buettner says.

The team documents each move with videos, photos, and a detailed "Daily Dispatch" for older students, as well as a "Short Report" for younger ones. Teachers can download accompanying national standards-aligned curricula in language arts, math, science, health, and geography.

In addition, Blue Zones offers a four-week fitness challenge that encourages kids to boost their fruit and veggie consumption and exercise levels while cutting back on television and soda. Students can track their progress online via cheerfully illustrated graphs. It works, says Buettner: Last year, participants cut their screen time and upped their veggie intake by 80 percent each, making Blue Zones one of the only virtual field trips that urges kids to actually put down the mouse and go outside.

GoNorth!

An exhilarating combination of high tech wizardry and true outdoor adventure, GoNorth! offers students a virtual seat on a real-life around-the-pole journey by dogsled. The trip will last five years and is designed to help kids learn about Arctic ecology, its inhabitants, and its role in the health of the planet. Since 2004 the GoNorth! team of professional explorers and educators has traveled through the U.S. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Russia and Scandinavia, beaming back a prodigious cache of video, audio, photo, and text updates.

Distance Learning:

California students use the GoNorth! Web site.

Credit: Polarhusky.com

The project's Web site is truly interactive: A weekly Q&A connects classrooms around the world for a live text chat with the team and scientific guest experts like Weather Channel meteorologist Dan Dix, who fielded questions about the climate during the 2008 leg. (Last year, the team was delighted to discover that Australian students were even waking up at 3 A.M. to tune in.) Students can also upload their own movies, artwork, short stories, and other handiwork to the site's "collaboration zones," which encourage kids to create material, not just absorb it. More than 300 pages of standards-based curriculum for grades K-12 are available for teachers to download.

GoNorth! is presented with energy and good humor, and kids love the antics of the sled dogs, who all have their own profile pages and student fan bases. One of the huskies even blogs, providing a dog's-eye view of the trip. Yet students are also asked to ponder some weighty environmental issues, including climate change, oil drilling, and deforestation. The 2009 leg of the journey, across the Greenlandic ice cap, will focus on maritime exploration, and 2010's trek through Canada will investigate pollution.

"I want students to experience the world without having to leave their classroom walls," says team leader Aaron Doering, who researches learning technologies at the University of Minnesota. "They get to be part of our expedition, but they also understand that there is something bigger going on out there that they truly can be part of."

Windows into Wonderland

Windows into Wonderland, the National Park Service's series of electronic field trips exploring Yellowstone National Park, is a set of charming Flash animations that intercut cartoons with actual photos of the park.

Students follow along with the animated members of the Yellowstone Ministry of Mysteries as they investigate natural phenomena, including the geysers, hot springs, and animals that make Yellowstone famous. (Just ignore the characters' groan-worthy names, like Maya Crowbes, the microorganism expert.) The most recent -- and most technologically advanced -- field trips are the best; try Getting into Hot Water, about a mysterious problem with the park's rivers, or Where the Bison Roam, about the misadventures of a buffalo named Rosie.

These trips are probably best suited to students working singly or in small groups, so they can participate in the interactive features that crop up from time to time, like short quizzes and games. Hot Water has a clever feature, a pop-up notepad that lets kids jot down their hunches as they try to solve the mystery. Although the "live" component of these field trips -- a Q&A with park experts via online message board -- is active for only two days after each video premieres, the For Teachers link has lesson plans for students in grades 5-8. For example, one lesson explains how to demonstrate the formation of a caldera -- a mega-crater caused by a volcano's collapse -- using a dishwashing tub, a bike pump, and sand.

National Geographic: Lewis & Clark

A standout thanks to its simple beauty and intuitive navigation, this site was launched to accompany the release of the National Geographic Society's IMAX movie Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West, but your class can enjoy it even without the $15 DVD.

Clicking on points along a sepia-toned map lets students trace Lewis and Clark's search for a water route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. Along the way, they’ll learn about the approximately 300 new plant and animal species the explorers encountered and read about their run-ins with grizzly bears, their perilous passage through the Bitterroot Mountains, and, of course, their famous partnership with the Native American Sacagawea.

Each leg of the journey is accompanied by a dozen or so artfully illustrated or photographed images of iconic American West native species like the Montana great horned owl, the ponderosa pine, and the northern bobcat, as well as a few of Lewis and Clark's more obscure discoveries. (Lemon scurfpea, anyone?) Click on the thumbnail images of each to see more information about its habitat and endangered species status. The Kids' Activities link will take you to related classroom activities for grades 3-5 and 6-8 from the National Geographic Xpeditions Web site, most of which have maps and other materials to download for offline use.

Kara Platoni is a freelance science writer in Oakland, California.

Go to "How To: Make the Most of Virtual Field Trips."

Comments (9)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sharon Eilts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Fabulous! I love to take my students around the world to experience things they would not have a chance to see/do otherwise.

Sharon Eilts

Renee Moore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

These are some great examples; thanks for bringing them to our attention. It occurs to me that those working in teacher education programs (traditional and alternate route) could make use of these models in training our next teachers.

Gerald A. Votta's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Gerald A. Votta & I teach at Williamstown HS in Southern New Jersey. We have an Engineering Academy and I teach engineering courses to 10th, 11th and 12th graders. The engineering curriculum was developed by PLTW and is entirely project based learning. Each year I have a student say to me "This is the only class I look forward to all day". It became apparent to me that all classes should be developed to be project based. I wanted to learn how these classes were developed and began by asking PLTW people about the process. The answer in brief is that it takes about three years with a team of teachers and writers working full time to develop a single course.

It was clear to me that a single teacher could not possibly develop such a course. I write this information with the hope that someone will begin the process of creating a National Education Academy for the sole purpose of developing project based courses for all subjects and not just for a special area.

Linda McDermon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We use H.323 technology to go live with the museums & other institutions our state. It is fantastic; these math, science, and environmental experts teach our students. They send us a box of artifacts or items for the students to manipulate and ask questions. They work in groups and report back to the class and teacher. We use a regular TV, 65 inch (& they are really cheap now that hi-def is here) and a Polycom or Tandberg. You can get a great unit for under $10000. Yes, that sounds like a lot, but it is less than each grade level renting buses and taking a trip to the state capitol for tours or museum visits. It's paid for in one year and then you have equipment for many years. Imagine, students can visit state museums several times a year with expert instruction. In our state, these are free connections. There are also many direct connections from school to school in a state, connections to other states, and other countries. We have connected with a primary school in England and emailed and videoconferenced every 3 weeks, exchanging boxes of clothing, foods, pictures, and pamplets. It is amazing. Bringing other countries, cultures, and students together is certainly a goal of 21st century learning. There is Read Around the Planet sponsored by TWICE and Megaconference Jr. Our students love seeing the other countries in their native dress, the student presentations, and the amazing dialogs that begin with these experiences. Some students blog their responses to the videoconferences on the school distance learning blog.

Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read with interest your articles on virtual fieldtrips. In 2007, you kindly wrote about our virtual link up between a youth expedition to Oman with London students (http://www.edutopia.org/oman-are-we-far-home). In 2008 we made good on our promise and brought 8 students from 4 Middle Eastern countries to the UK (www.offscreened.com/expedition/2008) and also worked with polar explorer Robert Swan to bring his E-Base project to schools globally, including live links from Antarctica to schools on 5 continents (http://ebase.2041.com).

Back in the UK Digital Explorer has trained over 500 teachers to create their own virtual fieldtrips using Google Earth (in association with Google UK and the Royal Geographical Society) and next year we are bringing an expedition blogging service to youth expeditions in the UK and beyond. An example of the blogging template can be seen at www.d-eblog.com.

Also of interest may be the section written by myself in the ICT in Geography publication on virtual fieldwork: http://www.geography.org.uk/download/GA_REICTinSecondaryGeography.pdf which explores in more detail some of the points mentioned in your article.

It's a fascinating area which we are working to get to as many schools as possible.

abdul bari's picture

An exhilarating combination of high tech wizardry and true outdoor adventure, GoNorth! offers students a virtual seat on a real-life around-the-pole journey by dogsled. The trip will last five years and is designed to help kids learn about Arctic ecology, its inhabitants, and its role in the health of the planet. Since 2004 the GoNorth! team of professional explorers and educators has traveled through the U.S. Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Russia and Scandinavia, beaming back a prodigious cache of video, audio, photo, and text updates.1: If you are interested in online degree education from a well reputed & world famous university then visit our website to get a degree for low price
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kakucsi's picture

You can get a great unit for under $10000. Yes, that sounds like a lot, but it is less than each grade level renting buses and taking a trip to the state capitol for tours or museum visits. It's paid for in one year and then you have equipment for many years. Imagine, students can visit state museums several times a year with expert instruction. In our state, these are free connections. There are also many direct connections from school to school in a state, connections to other states, and other countries. We have connected with a primary school in England and emailed and videoconferenced every 3 weeks, exchanging boxes of clothing, foods, pictures, and pamplets. It is amazing. Bringing other countries, cultures, and students together is certainly a goal of 21st century learning. There is Read Around the Planet sponsored by TWICE and Megaconference Jr. Our students love seeing the other countries in their native dress, the student presentations, and the amazing dialogs that begin with these experiences. Some students blog their responses to the videoconferences on the school distance learning blog.

Randy Palmer's picture

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I also agree, that while zero energy homes are "cute" and needed, the funds held by consumers are just not there yet.

Jeffrey Brown's picture
Jeffrey Brown
Substitute Teacher - 100 Black Men of Akron member

I live in a medium-sized city. Working with black students who see no positive black academic role models. Imagine just having these students view the websites of every HBCU in the nation then report on it to the other students in the room. That could inspire them incredibly

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