News & Media

Around the world without leaving school: virtual field trips take off

01/20/2015 Lancaster Online By Kara Newhouse

Students in Bridget Kaufhold's fourth-grade class knew that the children they could see projected on their classroom white board were in another state. But they didn't know which one.
And the kids on the screen didn't know where the Neff Elementary School students were located either.
The task for both classes, connected through a live video chat, was to pinpoint their counterparts' location using a series of yes-or-no questions and their budding geography skills.
The activity, called a Mystery Skype, is a new learning exercise popping up in schools around the country, thanks to the education division of the popular Internet chat service.
It's just one example of how teachers are capitalizing on modern technology — and overcoming tight budgets — to give students out-of-classroom experiences without ever climbing on a school bus.
Other virtual field trips taken in Lancaster County schools in recent years have included cyber tours of educational sites, conversations with experts in their fields, and cultural exchanges via video conference.
"Do you live in the Mountain Time Zone?" a Neff student asked, kicking off the Mystery Skype last week.
"Noooooo," replied the six students in parochial school uniforms on the screen.
"Are you in the Eastern time zone?"
Neff students standing by large wall maps, writing on small paper maps, or clicking through Google Earth quickly zeroed in on states from Michigan eastward and south to Florida.
After ten minutes of questions about geographic features and capital cities, they landed on the secret state: Connecticut.
A few minutes later, the New England students determined that Neff students were here in the Keystone State.
"It's more exciting than your average geography lesson, because you're not just looking at a map to locate. You're actually working with a person and being a detective," said Kaufhold, the Neff teacher.
Even without the surprise element, students love opportunities to connect with distant people and places through virtual field trips, according to Janice Estabrook, gifted education coordinator for Intermediate Unit 13.
Estabrook organizes regular enrichment seminars that typically include a virtual component as well as hands-on activity for students. A high school favorite is a video conference with doctors during a live surgery.
"It is really amazing with the high-definition how much you can actually see," she said.
"It always surprises us how informal the surgeons are. They're chatting with the kids as they do the knee replacement. They pass the microphone around and talk about all the different careers you can do even if you don't want to be a doctor. It's very captivating to the kids."
Other virtual field trips organized by local educators have included a "visit" to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a conversation with a diver/archeologist in Egypt and a chat with pen pals in Scotland.
Some virtual field trips are initiated independently by teachers, while others are coordinated by organizations and businesses, drawing hundreds of participants nationwide.
Warwick High School students, for instance, joined a live Google+ session in December with a cattle rancher in California and a Strasburg farmer.
The Warwick students were on screen with the farmers, asking questions, while students from 80 other schools watched.
EarthEcho International, a Washington, D.C.-based education nonprofit, hosted the event. The organization has held free, monthly virtual field trips since 2013 with up to 300 schools participating.
"Classrooms today, there's really not the time or financial resources to go outside the classroom all the time. (Virtual fields trips) bring scientists, unique locations and new perspectives to them," said Allie Toomey, EarthEcho's education coordinator.
She said one of the best virtual field trips her organization hosted was when engineers took live video equipment into a storm water tunnel during the session.
Estabrook, of IU13, said she initially worried that cyber excursions wouldn't be as engaging as in-person learning. She no longer worries about that.
"The kids love them. There's just something about knowing that they're talking to somebody in a different place."
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