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Students travel the world with a computer and projector

Google+ program helps classrooms confined by budget cuts explore the world outside of school
Students participating in the virtual field trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden watched horticulturalists demonstrate tree removal and the environmental impact of an invasive beetle.

Students from around the world have been traveling virtually to the White House, the Antarctic and the International Space Station thanks to a Google+ program that helps classrooms confined by budget cuts explore the world outside of school.

With Connected Classrooms, a free service launched in 2013 by Google+, teachers and students can go on free, virtual field trips to dozens of locations around the world.

“This kind of technology has a lot of potential to bring students and experts together, and give students experiences virtually that they would never have the opportunity to do in person,” says Jennifer Schwartz Ballard, associate vice president of education at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which in December became the first public garden in the country to host a virtual field trip on Google+.

Virtual field trips take the form of “Google Hangouts on Air,” which are live video conferences with up to 10 participant screens that are broadcast on Google+ and recorded to YouTube. In these Hangouts, participating students, teachers and trip hosts connect their phone, tablet or computer webcams in one virtual space, and can see and interact with one another while other students and teachers watch the broadcast.

Specific tours

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s hour-long virtual field trip took students into the garden grounds as horticulturalists filmed themselves on laptops and camera phones. The topic of the trip was the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that destroys trees.

Students learned the history of the beetle and how it spread to the United States, its life cycle and its impact on ecosystems. A horticulturalist used a dissecting microscope to show students live ash borer larvae. Students also followed scientists virtually into the woods to look for signs of infestation in the trees.

Classrooms in Chicago, Arizona and Virginia participated on-air, while dozens of students from other schools watched or interacted online through a chat feature. “The classrooms in Arizona and Virginia will likely never get to our garden,” Schwartz Ballard says. “And the students in Chicago may or may not depending on the resources at their school. This is one way to share our resources and increase access.”

Chicago Botanic Garden officials plan to do three virtual field trips per year on different topics. “It’s a free resource for teachers to enrich curriculum,” Schwartz Ballard says. “All they need is a computer and a projector.”

These virtual trips include tours of facilities and expert Q&A sessions. The trips’ hosts, usually representatives of the virtual destination, select one to four volunteer classrooms to participate live and on camera. Other teachers can show the field trip to their classes via projectors or individual computers.

The 49 trips from 2013 now available to watch on Connected Classrooms include a tour of Pixar Studios in California lead by film animators. Other virtual field trip participants include scientists who worked on the Mars Curiosity Rover, curators from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Zoo Atlanta zoologists who answer questions on baby pandas.

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