Olympia students travel country to learn — virtually

Olympia Regional Learning Academy uses technology to learn from pros in Denver, New York

lpemberton@theolympian.comApril 1, 2013 

Students in Olympia Regional Learning Academy’s high school preparation class visited the Denver Museum of Nature & Science last week. And they didn’t have to leave their classroom for the experience.

The students participated in a “virtual field trip” with the museum staff via video conference technology.

“It was like Skyping,” said eighth-grader Ara Martin, 14.

“It was like having a teacher in front of class, but on a screen,” said eighth-grader Hannah Pierce, 14.

“It was awesome,” said seventh-grader Anna Lingor, 13.

The virtual field trip was led by an instructor who covered the art of scientific illustration along with the latest research on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

“The mountains are made out of ice, and it rains methane there,” Pierce said.

“They think that’s what Earth could have been like a couple billion years ago,” added Lingor.

Denver Museum of Nature & Science has offered interactive video-conference classes for about a decade, according to Mark Widdifield, distance learning assistant coordinator. It expanded its offerings a few years ago and now holds 15-25 virtual classes a week, he said. Topics range from the digestive system (with a frog dissection), puberty and body changes, virtual heart, virtual lung, and scientific illustration.

“With distance learning, we can spread the love of science, scientific thinking and our scientists’ research anywhere and anytime in the world,” Widdifield said.

Olympia Regional Learning Academy (ORLA) students have participated in 10 virtual field trips in the past two years, including ones to the Toledo Zoo, the New York Hall of Science, and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario, Canada, according to Patricia Coon, the school’s instructional technology resource specialist. Most of the presentations were free and coordinated through the Educational Service District 113, she said.

In fact, several South Sound schools have participated in virtual field trips, including Capital High School, Griffin School and Rainier Elementary School, according to Carrie Sherman with ESD 113’s Regional Institute Technical Unit.

The average cost of a virtual tour is $150, she said. But the district offers financial help to cover those costs. In addition, many places, including NASA, offer free virtual programs for schools.

“There are all sorts of organizations that do these — they even get as technical as autopsies and forensics,” Sherman said.

“It’s just exposure to things that they may not ever have a chance to see.”

One of the most popular virtual field trips taken by students at the Olympia academy was led by a docent at the Sheffield Museum of Rural History in Canada who portrayed medieval life in costume and through conversation.

“He got all these teenagers up, and they circle-danced,” Coon said. “That’s how engaging it was. And they liked it.”

Many of the organizations also provide worksheets, research materials and lesson plans as part of their programs, she said.

ORLA teacher Erin Curtiss said even though a virtual field trip involves a screen, it isn’t anything like watching a video. It’s interactive, and students are encouraged to ask questions and respond to the instructor.

“It’s authentic,” she said. “They’re learning and doing something. We don’t have a lot of opportunity for field trips, and this is a great replacement.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 lpemberton@theolympian.com www.theolympian.com/edblog

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