Virtual Field Trips
In elementary school, field trips were the highlight of the year for me. Going home with a permission slip pinned to my blouse meant a fun-filled bus trip to someplace new was close at hand. On the big day, we’d all gather in anticipation of the arrival of the bus, gripping our sack lunches and chattering excitedly. Most of the time, the field trip was associated closely with something we were studying in class. For example, in fourth grade we studied the California missions. To supplement what we learned, we went on a field trip to Mission San Juan Bautista. Today, fourth graders in California are still studying missions, but by incorporating virtual field trips, they can visit more than just the local mission. Google Earth is the perfect “school bus” to take students on a virtual field trip to all of the California missions.
Of course, traditional field trips offer the kinds of hands-on experience that no virtual field trip can or should replace. However, virtual field trips can take teachers and students far beyond their local communities, states, countries or hemisphere— all without transportation, chaperones, permission slips or spending a nickel.
Is your class doing a Social Studies unit on Egypt? Explore the ancient pyramids by typing “pyramids” in the Google Earth Search box and then turning on the 3D buildings layer. Within moments, you are in front of the three Pyramids, viewing them and their surrounding locations. As an added bonus, you can also see the Sphinx. Your field trip to the pyramids can be supplemented by turning on the Panoramio and Wikipedia layers so students can also see photos and read about each pyramid in greater detail. Additionally, the Ruler tool lets students measure how tall each pyramid is and how far each is from the another.
Another great type of virtual field trip is one that supplements a book students are reading in class. Google Lit Trips is a great site that offers Google Earth content for a wide range of literature. One of my favorites for younger children is the Make Way For Ducklings tour. You can follow Mr. and Mrs. Mallard as they find a place to raise their family of ducklings. Students can see pictures of the real swan boats and “stand” on the same street corner as the ducks. High school students reading The Grapes of Wrath can load the tour and travel with the Joad family across the United States during the Great Depression.
But the distance you can travel on a virtual field trip with Google Earth is not limited to our planet. You can take students on a trip to space using Google Sky. You can teach your students about astronomy while zooming around the universe. You can travel from star to star or take a weekly trip to space to monitor current astronomical events. Google Earth’s Sky includes layers on backyard astronomy, stars, galaxies, and the solar system. Learning about astronomy might still include a trip to the local planetarium but with Google Earth you can continue the trip as long as you wish.
Students can create their own virtual field trips too. For example, they might create “What I did on Summer Vacation” virtual field trips, with journal entries and photos and share their trips with other students in class. Or for a family heritage unit, they might create a trip that maps the journey their forefathers took. This kind of project gives students a sense of where they come from and where they might be going.
Fields trips offer a wonderful experience for students to learn about their world firsthand. Getting out of the classroom to explore is invaluable and often ties together all the various elements students are learning about. Virtual field trips, such as those taken with Google Earth, not only enable students to visit places they might normally never go, but even those places few humans have ever been.