By Brandon Wislocki
Over the past year, my fourth grade students have become “frequent fliers.”
We’ve visited Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., took a tour of a poultry farm in Ohio, explored a manufacturing plant in England and even traveled to Mars alongside NASA experts.
What’s more, no field trip permission slips were even required; we did it all from our classroom through virtual field trips (VFTs).
We can all agree that physically immersing students in other locations so they can experience diverse heritages, cultures, landscapes and other opportunities is invaluable. However, as most educators know, we are often limited by budget, time and a host of other constraints when attempting to organize traditional field trips. VFTs are an important tool in teaching and learning that use the “power of place” to engage students, inspire curiosity and enrich instruction.
High-quality virtual field trips are curriculum-aligned, fully-produced programs that transport educators and students outside their classroom walls to meet experts and gain access to places far away from them, or sometimes exclusive locations that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to visit.
Virtual field trips require less time than traditional field trips (usually 30 minutes to an hour), less planning (no need to figure out lunch plans and/or transportation) and less money (many VFTs are offered at no cost).
Virtual field trips have completely changed the way my students experience the world outside our school’s walls. My students are incredibly engaged through these virtual learning experiences and often get excited to visit new places and see where we are traveling to next.
I’ve found that the virtual field trips that work best for my class are those aligned to what we are working on in school, and provide opportunities to collaborate and discuss important issues with their classmates. (I rely on Discovery Education for many, but there are other sources as well).
Some of the virtual field trips below that had my students glued to their screen:
- Generation Beyond: One of the first astronauts to reach Mars could be sitting in your classroom right now. This VFT offers an exclusive tour of an innovative space facility and allowed my students to meet talented STEM professionals who are currently working on missions to an asteroid, Jupiter and Mars. Plus, they experienced behind-the-scenes access to sophisticated space exploration technology in action, like 3D printing and virtual reality.
- The Good Egg Project: We don’t have chicken coops or even chickens in Orange County, California. Yet, my students were able to take a virtual tour of Hertzfeld Poultry Farm in Ohio, where they discovered what farmers are doing to reduce their environmental footprint. Right away, my students accepted the classroom challenge I posed to them of creating a chicken coop that was sustainable.
- Alcoa Kitts Green: My students “went abroad” this year when they were virtually transported to an advanced aerospace, transportation and industrial plant in Birmingham, England. Home to some of the most advanced manufacturing technology in the world, the Alcoa Kitts Green factory produces rolled aluminum products for aircraft, highly demanding industrial applications and high-performance Formula 1 racing cars. My students heard first-hand from expert engineers how these and other cutting-edge products are developed, and learned about the relevance and importance of STEM skills in everyday work.
- Ford’s Theatre: People from all over the nation come to Washington, D.C., to visit this historic theatre where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. For us, no exhaustive itinerary was required. This VFT allowed them to tour the site, and hear from the Theatre’s teaching artists about American history at the time of the event. The students saw parts of the theatre that are closed to the public, and even a few parts closed to those who provide in-person tours.
Coming up in January 2017 before the Super Bowl, my class is also going to join a VFT with the National Football League (NFL) and the American Heart Association at the Houston Texans’ practice facility to learn about the science behind cardio and strength exercises that NFL players use to stay fit and active. And in February, we’ll explore the world of innovation at 3M and hear from their top scientists who are exploring new possibilities to impact the world.
With that said, it’s all about balance. I’d never tell other educators to only use VFTs exclusively—it’s still crucial to physically get students outside of the classroom if and when possible. However, we should be careful not to underestimate the power of technology to bring the world to our students and expand the four walls of our classroom.
In addition to the list above, you can find a selection of even more virtual field trips to engage your students in Discovery Education’s archive of free virtual field trips.
This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education see:
- 4 Steps To Make Your Field Trip Matter
- Powerful School-Community Partnership Brings Learning to Life
- 5 Levels of Place-Based Learning Implementation
- 6 Starting Points for Place-Based Learning
Brandon Wislocki is a fourth-grade teacher in the Irvine Unified School District in Irvine, CA. Follow him on Twitter: @OCTechNet
Ford Theatre VFT feature image courtesy of Discover Education
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