- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - Without leaving their classrooms, students at Mote Elementary School were able to visit the Pyramids in Egypt, coral reefs off the coast of Australia and even the moon recently.

That’s because the school participated in the beta test of the Google Expedition Pioneers program, which is designed to use smartphone-style technology to take kids on virtual reality field trips.

The program uses Google Cardboard, a headset into which devices can be placed. Those devices are then queued up to show “expeditions” captured on 360-degree cameras, so when students move their heads they are able to look all around them as they go.

Stella Evans, a technology teacher at the school, coordinated Mote’s participation in the program. She served as the “tour guide” for students - using her iPad, she could highlight features of particular interest, which students would then see highlighted on their screens.

She also was able to keep track of how many students were looking at the features she’d picked out so she could coach her kids to stay on task.

“When they put on their goggles, I mean, that’s something you just have to experience,” Evans said. “I start, and the whole class is just “oohs” and “aahs” and the kids are pointing even though, you know, they’re not actually there.”

Schools in Delaware and across the rest of the country are trying to find ways to use new technologies to better engage students in their lessons.

In his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, Gov. Jack Markell has asked for $3 million to improve high-speed internet access to schools and an extra $1 million for technology block grants for districts. Markell said those items were top priorities from district leaders.

“They were just really pumped up about this program and when I had an opportunity to experience it myself, I thought my goodness, this is really neat,” said Bradford Holstein, Mote’s principal.

Holstein said immersive, eye-catching experiences like the virtual field trips open students’ minds for future lessons. If a class is studying ecosystems, for example, the lessons are much more likely to “stick” if a kid has seen fish swimming among the coral, not just some pictures in a textbook.

Holstein also points out that trips like these can be an equalizer for kids whose families may not be able to afford vacations or trips to museums, aquariums or other mind-opening place.

The Pioneers program is still in its early stages, but Evans says she is working to try and make it a more regular experience for her students.

“It engages them, it extends their motivation,” she said. “Yeah it is a cool toy, but it’s a way to motivate them beyond just a report.”

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Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., https://www.delawareonline.com


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