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Now students take field trips online

High fuel prices make virtual field trips popular with schools – but no substitute for the real thing.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 7, 2008

Almost there: Glacier National Park's Bill Hayden displays a podcast of a grizzly bear at Lake McDonald in Montana. Such videos and other interactive elements are part of virtual field trips.

Craig Moore/AP/file


Stockton, Calif.

When seventh graders in Stockton took a field trip this week to see elephant seals, they didn't even step outside their school. Instead, with the help of a projector and a video camera, the students teleconferenced with a state park guide on the California coast.

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Across a distance of 100 miles, students on the so-called "virtual field trip" got to talk with the guide, watch seals throw sand on themselves, and hear the blubbery beasts belch and bark – all without a yellow bus or permission slip.

"If you can't go somewhere, this can be the next best thing," says Craig Wedegaertner, an administrator at Marshall Middle School in Stockton. "Or, it can be used to prepare [students] before they go there."

As the days grow long and the school calendar short, field trip season is in full swing. But with fuel prices rocketing, some schools are discovering virtual field trips as a cost-effective way to add new – or farther afield – excursions.

"We are beginning to reach the tipping point" with virtual field trips, says Ruth Blankenbaker, executive director of the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) in Indianapolis.

As of last month, more than 1,125,000 students have participated in virtual field trips organized through the CILC website alone. Some 150 institutions – from National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the Bronx Zoo – list trips on the site, and each month sees another three or four additions.

The technology has been around for years, but it's only now gaining widespread adoption in classrooms, says Ms. Blankenbaker. There are several reasons: more schools with broadband, wider options for trips, rising costs for travel, and falling prices for teleconference systems.

"With this technology, you have erased the geographic boundaries of your field trip experience with one $1,500 to $5,000 expenditure [on equipment]," she says.

For instance, US students can talk with divers on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, practice their Spanish with kids in Costa Rica, or listen to stories told by Pearl Harbor survivors at the USS Arizona memorial in Hawaii.

When Pluto was demoted as a planet, Cheryl Dultz's set up a teleconference with a NASA educator who explained the reasons for the demotion to her third grade class in Citrus Heights, Calif.