By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Pacific Beach Middle School students in San Diego are led through a tour of Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz.
No bus, no fuss
Despite a severe storm, there’s no need to cancel a field trip to Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, the state’s only preserve for monarch butterflies. Students stay dry while touring a “butterfly city in the trees,” hearing a presentation about “The magic of monarchs,” and even participating in a lively question-and-answer session with a park ranger. Amazingly, the students do this without leaving Pacific Beach Middle School — located 500 miles away in San Diego.
Jenny Sims, coordinator of the school’s International Baccalaureate program, organized the “virtual” field trip for students through a program called PORTS, Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students, offered by the California State Parks Department.
“For teachers, this is another resource to make learning relevant and exciting,” says Sims, a member of the San Diego Education Association. “And students get to speak with an expert. It correlates really well with the science standards. It’s very cool.”
“It really is cool,” agrees student Sara Serafinovski. “We learn about stuff without actually going there, but we learn just as much.”
“It almost feels like we’re there,” chimes in classmate Marco Aguilar.
Virtual field trips have become increasingly trendy at public schools, and there are hundreds of them to choose from. The PORTS trips have been especially popular with teachers.
Pacific Beach students can see ranger John Goldberg on the screen, and he can see them. But since he doesn’t know their names, he relies on Sims to pick students to ask questions. “That way I won’t say rude things like you, in the blue jacket,” he explains to the students.
Goldberg talks about the park’s Monarch Grove, which provides a temporary home for over 100,000 monarchs each winter. From mid-October through the end of February, the monarchs congregate in the trees, he says. The area’s mild ocean air and eucalyptus grove provide a safe roost until spring.
“How many of you have ever looked a monarch butterfly right in the eye, eyeball to eyeball?” asks Goldberg. Nobody raises their hand, so Goldberg shows them slides of a monarch’s eyeball and shares some astonishing information: Monarchs have the second-best vision of all insects.
“Why do I know this? I’ve never seen one with glasses. And that’s the only bad joke I’m going to tell you,” he says, before launching into an explanation of how to tell the males from the females. (The male has narrow veins and two dots.)
“This technology allows us to reach students we were never able to reach before,” says Joe von Herrmann, PORTS program manager. “There has been a huge increase in urban students, and the state parks system has never had contact with most of them. But the good news is that last year, PORTS served about 25,000 students.”
Started in 2005, PORTS was used in about 700 classrooms last year. There is no cost to schools; they just need the right equipment — a high-speed Internet connection and a screen and camera for videoconferencing. Schools may borrow equipment initially from PORTS, with most school coordinators deciding afterward that it’s worth $1,500 or so to purchase the technology themselves, according to von Herrmann, who says the PORTS staff is eager to help teachers get started.
Among the units of study available through PORTS are tide pool ecology from Crystal Cove State Park, a study of elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Reserve, a government unit which provides the possibility of videoconferencing with a state legislator, a Gold Rush unit at Columbia State Historic Park, and an earth science unit from Anza Borrego Desert State Park. For more information, visit www.ports.parks.ca.gov.
Usually the ranger is inside the park — having arrived there on a four-wheel drive vehicle equipped with satellite and videoconferencing equipment — talking live to students. Other times rangers are speaking to students live in a studio against a backdrop of the park, much like a weather reporter on television. This was the case for the virtual visit to Natural Bridges State Park, since Santa Cruz was also experiencing a severe storm that day.
Rangers on location and in the studio rely on podcasts and slides to show students things that the camera can’t view close up, such as the intricate workings of a butterfly’s eyeball.
Virtual viewing of state parks can be geared to all age groups — even 5-year-olds. Janet Simms, a kindergarten teacher at Crescent Heights Language Arts Social Justice Magnet school, says her class loved it.
“It’s a lot of fun, it really is,” says the United Teachers Los Angeles member, whose class went on a virtual trip to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. “The ranger showed them fossil bones, and students were so amazed that the ranger could see them and hear everything they said. It’s a great way to enrich curriculum — and a great way to get children engaged and exposed to technology. It also provides an opportunity for children to ask questions. Afterwards, the children wrote thank-you letters to the ranger. It was a wonderful experience for all involved.”
The next best thing to being there
Melissa VanderMolen, a fourth-grade teacher at Taft Community School in Redwood City, has enjoyed virtual field trips with her students via the PORTS program, but says they are no substitute for real ones. Her Title I school still manages a few trips each year, but that is only because of funding from the Field Trip Foundation, which funds trips for schools in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties (for more information, visit www.fieldtripgroup.org).
“Nothing takes the place of being there and actually seeing something,” says VanderMolen.
“Although there are numerous advantages to taking elementary school students on virtual field trips, there are also constraints when using this type of exploration,” notes Meredith Robins in an online article, “Virtual Fieldtrips in the Elementary School Classroom.”
“Unfortunately, virtual field trips cannot provide sensory experiences for all the five senses like a live field trip may be able to achieve. For example, visiting a petting zoo provides an opportunity for students to interact with animals by petting them. Naturally, a virtual field trip is simply unable to provide the sensory experiences of touch, smell and perhaps taste. A virtual field trip can only accommodate a child’s sense of sight and sound.”
Indeed, the experiences of real field trips — boarding a bus with a permission slip and bag lunch in hand; driving adult chaperones crazy by singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”; and practicing the “buddy system” so nobody gets lost — are going by the wayside. Instead, teachers are opting for jaunts along the Information Highway due to budget constraints. This is especially true in low-income areas where parents can’t afford to pay out of pocket for excursions.
Sixty percent of teachers surveyed across the nation reported decreased funding for field trips in recent years due to budget cuts and high-stakes testing required by No Child Left Behind. The Los Angeles Times reports that class visits to science centers, museums and zoos are becoming increasingly rare, according to site operators and educators. For example, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County saw a sharp decline from 2004-05, when 241,075 students visited, to last year, when only 172,764 students came. With this year’s deficit, attendance is expected to drop further.
In some districts, administrators have put the kibosh on field trips. Last year, Riverside Unified School District ordered schools to re-evaluate the necessity of any field trips not paid for by donations, reports the Los Angeles Times.
“My school doesn’t get buses anymore because it’s too expensive,” says Kelly Magaudda, who teaches a third- and fourth-grade combination class for gifted students at Loma Portal Elementary School in San Diego. “It costs more than $200 for one bus trip. And it’s tough getting parents to drive.”
Magaudda, a member of the San Diego Education Association, recently brought New York City to her students via Meet Me At The Corner, which provides behind-the-scenes tours of many of the Big Apple’s most renowned landmarks. Through the website, her students visited Juilliard, saw Christmas windows downtown, and toured an art museum.
“My students loved it because their tour guides were students and offered a kid’s perspective. When kids teach other kids, they listen because they have the same vocabulary. It doesn’t go over their heads.”
Her students were so inspired that they wanted to create a podcast of their own virtual field trip, says Magaudda. So they filmed an outing where students experimented with pinhole photography and linked it to Meet Me At The Corner. (It can be viewed at www.meetmeatthecorner.org/episodes/pinhole-photography-for-kids.) Any class is capable of creating its own virtual field trip by taking a camera along on a real one, advises Magaudda.
While some school districts use virtual field trips to save money, other school districts view them as a nifty way for students to see faraway places they might otherwise never visit. At Bel Aire Elementary School in Tiburon, members of the Reed District Teachers Association took students to Central America for a few weeks via the Blue Zones, a free, interactive virtual expedition sponsored by National Geographic, the University of Minnesota and the National Institute on Aging.
The entire school had a chance to join the Blue Zones Program in 2007 for a trip to the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. Students undertaking this journey were asked to uncover the mystery of why people there live such long lives, and were told that 75 percent of longevity is based on habits and 25 percent is based on genetics.
Students were encouraged to ask online questions about the Nicoya residents’ diet, food preparation, exercise, family structure and daily lifestyle during a live “quest” that took place over several weeks. They cast online votes that directed the Blue Zones’ team of scientists, doctors, reporters and videographers on the areas where they should focus on next.
After a schoolwide kickoff assembly, teachers adapted their own virtual versions of the expedition. Some had their class watch in real time, and others preferred recorded snippets. The Blue Zones crew documents each move with videos, photos, a detailed “Daily Dispatch” for older students, and a “Short Report” for younger ones. Teachers can download national standards aligned curricula in language arts, math, science, health and geography from the website www.bluezones.com and can create their own units, too.
“At our school, it was a seamless integration of curriculum and technology,” reports Lori Mustille, the site’s technology coordinator. “There was a lot of planning and flexibility among teachers, but we have a team-teaching approach here and that helped.”
Fifth-grade teacher Carin Rhodes opted to infuse the Blue Zones with her Spanish curriculum through live videoconferencing. Students were able to converse with Blue Zones’ staff as well as young Costa Ricans.
“It was a good opportunity for my students to use the Spanish-speaking skills they were learning in class and talk with some of the people there,” she relates. “It was also a great way for them to reach out globally and make connections outside of where they live. It became real to them. They had a great time with it and learned so much.”
Library media teacher Melissa Jones supported the project by helping students connect what they were learning through Blue Zones with their own lives and decisions affecting their own health. She helped them find online databases and library books for further research about Costa Rica.
“They learned that people there have a healthy diet of fresh fruits, vegetables and grains grown locally, and that their culture is one of hard work and hospitality. They are a very peaceful people and don’t have a lot of stress like we have here in America. We have so much stress in our everyday life and its rush, rush, rush.”
For extra credit, says Jones, students contributed to her blog and answered questions she posted. Some, says Rhodes, spent their lunchtime videoconferencing with students from other school sites about the Blue Zones trip.
“Students learned many great things from this experience,” relates Mustille. “They learned that even in places where there is a different lifestyle, much is still the same. Students ride bicycles, play soccer and do other things just like them. But they don’t eat packaged food, they do lots of chores on the farm and are very productive and hard-working after school. Students here realized that watching TV for six hours a day may not be a good thing for a longer life. It was an interesting perspective.”
Among the units of study available through PORTS are:
- Tide pool ecology from Crystal Cove State Park
- A study of elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Reserve
- A government unit which provides the possibility of videoconferencing with a state legislator
- A Gold Rush unit at Columbia State Historic Park
- An earth science unit from Anza Borrego Desert State Park
For more information, visit www.ports.parks.ca.gov.
Tips for a successful virtual trip
- Keep parents in the loop. One way might be to send home “permission slips.”
- Have a goal. Have students search for particular information and make sure that the trip explores ideas, not just places.
- Continue the lessons offline. Have students keep journals of their travels. Encourage students to bring in food, music or clothing from cultures they are exploring.
- Select a virtual field trip that meshes with your classroom’s curriculum.
- Begin or follow up your virtual field trip with at least one lesson in order to help students make connections between the virtual destination and classroom curriculum.
- Remember that virtual field trips still require structure and supervision since you are “virtually” taking your students to another location.
- Plan ahead for a virtual field trip, just as you would plan ahead for a live one.
- If you are planning to go on a real field trip, go on a virtual one of the same place first. It’s a great way of letting students know what they should expect.
From Edutopia and Meredith Robins
Read our extended story on virtual field trips at www.cta.org/community/other/virtual+fieldtrips.htm, where you’ll also find our picks of the best virtual field trips currently available online.