Distance Learning | Feature

Semi-Virtual Field Trips

A teacher in California's Pleasant Valley High School figured out a way to connect his students to science in their own community, combining virtual field trips with hands-on activities and physical tours of local points of interest.

Through the wonders of video conferencing, students can visit with engineers at NASA and discuss science with experts from the Smithsonian Institution. Ray Barber, a teacher at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, would like to show his students how science can be found closer to home. Over the last several years, the California science instructor has conducted multiple virtual field trips and taught others to do the same.

The idea first came to him when he was taking a course as part of a master's degree program in science teaching at nearby California State University, Chico. He and his fellow students were discussing Earth sciences and wondering just how many people had an active volcano (Mount Lassen) in their own backyard, and wouldn't that make for a great field trip for high school students?

"There are so many resources that are relevant in terms of science, places we could see. But there's no funding for transportation or substitutes; it takes time out of other classes," Barber moaned to the others. That's when it occurred to him: Why not send the kids on virtual field trips through videoconferencing? A handful of students could go to a location, talk with the experts, and--armed with cameras and computers--broadcast the experience back to the classroom for the other kids, who could have an otherwise normal school day.

His professor encouraged Barber to pursue the idea, which he estimated would cost about $5,000 for buying the equipment needed. He learned about the Toyota Tapestry Grants program, which funds projects for science teachers. In spite of having no experience in writing grants, Barber applied in 2007 and won $10,000 to work on the project, which he titled "What's in My Backyard? Connecting Students to Community Science."

Field Trip Logistics
Now armed with the funding, Barber set about figuring out the logistics and buying the gear he thought the project would require.

On the logistical side, the freshman students who would be the test pilots for this effort had to get a permission slips and release forms signed by their parents; the release would allow videos showing the students to be posted to the school Web site in recorded form. Later in the process, for one destination--a local brewery--Barber had to get permission from his principal and the school board.

Next, he had to line up local destinations in the community for the students to visit. "I wanted to make sure the concepts were relevant and that they tied to the curriculum," Barber said. "That was the biggest logistics issue--to make sure it coincided with what we were talking about in class at the time. That didn't always happen, but it came pretty close."

Starting with an "extensive list," Barber began working the phone to see what he could organize. He was turned down multiple times; one company, for example, was concerned about liability issues; another didn't want the group to use its network because that could possibly gain them access to trade secrets. But he ended up with what he considered to be set of six fairly solid field trip destinations.

Those included a local neon sign maker, to coincide with the study of atomic structure; a glassmaking company, to correspond with the study of compounds and states of matter; and, of course, the beer maker. A visit to regional favorite Sierra Nevada Brewery allowed students to study liquids and solutions. The list also included visits to a local community observatory and Chico State's digital music production recording studio, as well as its stream study program.

Barber calculated that to give each student an opportunity to travel and produce a Webcast, each trip would involve six to 10 students in the field, acting as the Webcast production team. They would be transported by district van along and a volunteer parent car.

As he envisioned it, the remainder of the class would stay behind and interact with the field trip team by posing questions to the experts. The next day, all students would participate in class projects related to the previous day's field trip. Of course, the on-site activities would have to be doubled because Barber had two freshman science classes to put through their paces.

Video Production Gear
Proclaiming himself an "Apple fan boy," Barber invested in three Apple MacBooks, three Canon ZR800 mini-DV video cameras with optical zoom, and wireless lavalier microphones. Three cameras and two computers would go out into the field. The third computer would stay behind in the classroom, along with a USB Webcam, so that those in the field could view the students back at school.

Two of the field cameras were hooked up to the computers, which were running iChat, Apple's four-point multicast software. Barber considered using other software, but he found the Apple technology superior. "It gave me 30 frames per second and 640 x 480 resolution, which is decent," he said. Plus, it was easy to plug in an external video camera and work with that. Also, it allowed for four videos to show up simultaneously on the screen--one for each camera in operation.

While cameras 1 and 2 in the field were fixed on the expert giving the tour, who also wore a wireless mic, and on whatever activity was being shown, the third field video camera was used to capture "a third angle for the final edit of the video tape," Barber explained.

The optical zoom feature allowed the video operators to zoom in on the action when it wasn't possible to be physically close, such as when glass was being heated in the furnace at the glass company.

Back in the classroom, the students were viewing the action on an eight-foot screen, and the audio from the mics was being piped to them through a sound system.

Video Production Team Training
Before going out into the field, Barber put his students through a couple of weeks of training. "We started in the classroom," Barber said. "We'd talk about how to frame a shot with the video camera, how to use the camera, how to zoom in and out. Then we talked about how to use the computer, and then how to use the computer with the camera, and then how to initiate and receive or accept a video conference."

From there, he began separating the students so that they could experience the virtual field trip concept.

"I'd send kids into the lab area and I'd have another group in the lecture area of the classroom, and we would videoconference with each other," Barber said. "Then once we got that far, I would accompany kids down to the library, and they'd conduct interviews with the librarian or with the counseling office or career office or different students working on a project. Then we'd visit the principal and vice principal. We went to the welding shop and art studio. We were getting the kids trained in conducting a virtual field trip."

The Challenges of the Work
Barber faced the additional challenge of working with the field trip "hosts" to prepare them for the special requirements of a videoconferenced version. For instance, they had to agree to allow video cameras into the session and to provide an Internet connection. He would also visit the site about a week or two before the real trip to make sure the Internet connection would work, to go over the topic the students would be studying, and to make sure the visit could be handled in the 30-minute timeframe given for it. After each meeting he'd write down the general timeline for the visit and provide that to the host.

The experience of the field trips needed to be more than the standard passive tour. That turned out to be a challenge in some cases, he said, when the experts didn't interact with the students "like I hoped they would." As he explained, "To be a good learning experience, the kids have to be really engaged. If the person that is conducting the field trip has no experience with education, it really becomes a passive tour. A lot of these kids aren't going to be motivated or encouraged enough to get up and ask questions."

The best sessions turned out to be those given by educators, such as the stream study field trip--as it happened, the last one scheduled--which involved two faculty members from the university explaining seasonal stream processes. During his pre-field trip meeting with the two instructors, Barber recalled, "They started to say, 'When are we going to interact with the kids back in the classroom?' They planned for that."

Those particular Chico State faculty members put the field team through an activity involving stream erosion and deposition. The kids back in the classroom had to do stream flow calculations that they could then feed back as answers to the instructors.

That session also provided an "ah-hah" moment for Barber. The students on site had collected rocks into buckets from the middle of the stream where the trip was taking place. The next day Barber pulled the buckets out with all of the rocks. "The kids in the classroom were just amazed," he said. "It was like I was bringing out gold." Suddenly, he said, he realized that physical objects from the trip made it more tangible for them. "My whole goal was to get them connected to science in the community. I was able to do that with the video conferencing. But when I showed up with rocks and saw the excitement, I realized this was another piece of the puzzle. By bringing something back, it made the field trip real, not just something being watched on TV."

In the future, Barber said, he would play a stronger "teacher role" when needed. That includes being in front of the camera more often in order to explain what's being shown and how it ties to the topic being studied.

Also, while the initial idea was to allow students in the classroom to pose questions to the experts in the field, it turned out to be difficult to hear them. Barber considered buying an external speaker that could be set up on site, "but it was one more thing to lug around," he admitted. So eventually the classroom resorted to using small whiteboards upon which they could write short messages that could be read on the computers by the field trip group.

In spite of his efforts to prepare ahead of time, technology also waylaid the project. Field trip snafus surfaced when one or another connection ran into network ports that had been blocked.

The day of the actual field trips tended to be hectic. The day before, Barber would direct the students in loading the gear into bags. Then he would arrive to the district at 6 a.m. on the day of the field trip to check out a van and head to school, where the kids would be ready to load the gear and themselves. Since there were two periods of science classes that would be in attendance back at school, the first one might take place as soon as they arrived on site. Then they'd take a break and do it again during the second period science class.

Following each field trip, Barber would use Apple's editing software, Final Cut Pro, to put together a brief video of the session, using all six of the screen captures available, three from each period. Watching that final video from the class Web site would drive home the lesson for the participants, he explained. It could also be viewed by other classes or students who had to miss class on that day.

Virtual Field Trip 'Lite'
Barber last held his field trips during the 2007-2008 school year. Since that year he has relinquished his freshman science classes in lieu of taking on teaching honors biology and chemistry classes. But since then he has held training sessions for other educators in running virtual field trips through the California Science Project, an endeavor of the Regents of the University of California to improve science in state schools. And he has done numerous presentations on the topic at education conferences.

He's also begun experimenting with a highly streamlined model of his initial idea that doesn't require bags of gear to be loaded into the back of a van. Now, he advised, all the educator needs to run a virtual field trip is an iPhone 4 or iPod touch loaded with Apple's application FaceTime. That provides a face-to-face video calling feature that works with the forward-facing and rear-facing cameras built into the devices.

As he explained, to test the capabilities, "I downloaded the software and installed it on my laptop at school and then I connected the laptop to my classroom projector and started up the software. Because I was on wireless network with my iPhone 4, I was able to video conference with my class using the phone. I went outside and showed my kids about all the types of leaves that are outside the classroom. They could see me and I could see them."

Barber bought both devices, one for himself and one to loan to the host doing the virtual field trip. But no longer will he or his students have to leave the classroom to interact with the expert.

He described the new scenario: "Chemistry student, today we're going to do this lab. We're going to take our samples and send them over to Chico State. We're going to watch live as it's loaded into nuclear magnetic resonance machine, and we're going to see the professor show us how it works. He's going to show samples being loaded. He's going to e-mail them back to us, and we're going to analyze them in the classroom later."

Barber acknowledged that the new approach "doesn't allow for the frills in terms of audio and archiving." But it does give the students a chance to see what's happening within their own community, he said, adding, "And it does simplify things: 'My kids have questions for you. They'll take five or 10 minutes. Could you do a quick video conference and talk to us live?'"

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