Friday, February 12, 2016

Google Expeditions - no school bus? No problem!

Explorer Middle School students 'swim' deep in the ocean from their library seats.
Photo by Maggie Zehring
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 closeup 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 U.S. and provides everything needed to run virtual reality (VR) expeditions for the day, including cellphones and Google Cardboard, which are VR viewers. They also include 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.


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 had a Mrs.Frizzle experience of 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 ed tech lesson, the key element is how the teacher conducts the lesson. Here are five 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.    


  1. 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.


  1. Have students to create their own VR experiences. Students can use Google Street View app to capture 360-degree photographs of locations and then connect them to a geography, history, landforms or math lesson. Add on the Google Cardboard feature, and students will be creating virtual expeditions of their own. This is a terrific way to address the ISTE Standards for Students in the area of Creativity and Innovation. By working together to communicate information and ideas to produce an original expedition, the Communication and Collaboration standards are addressed.  Tie the expedition into project-based learning unit or research project, and the students are also creating expeditions are reflect the process of gathering, evaluating, and using information  (ISTE Standards-Students/Research and Information Fluency).


  1. Use Expeditions as a jumping off point to learn about VR.  Explain that Stuff is one website that covers the history of VR and how it works, and there are many others. Doing their own research of 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.  

Here's the link to an article I wrote for ISTE on Google Expeditions and here's the link to a photo blog containing live tweets of the Google Expeditions came to my school.




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