Google program allows West Oak Lane charter students to see the world, and beyond

 Students at West Oak Lane Charter School take virtual field trips via the Google Expeditions program. (John Corrigan/for NewsWorks)

Students at West Oak Lane Charter School take virtual field trips via the Google Expeditions program. (John Corrigan/for NewsWorks)

Eighth-graders from West Oak Lane Charter School visited the Moon on Thursday.

Not really, but they came pretty close thanks to Google Expeditions, a worldwide pilot program allowing teachers to take their classes on virtual field trips.

“The students get to see places they’ve only dreamed of seeing,” said Michele Jones, director of development at West Oak Lane Charter. “We are a technology-focused charter school so this is perfect timing.”

Seventh-grade teacher Jamie Wesztergom discovered Google Expeditions through a Facebook friend from Chicago and immediately rallied her fellow teachers and administrators to apply for the program to come to West Oak Lane Charter School.

“It’s very different from anything I’ve ever seen before,” Wesztergom said.

A box arrives with everything classes need to travel: ASUS smartphones, a tablet for the teacher, a router that allows Expeditions to run without an internet connection, and Google Cardboard viewers, more than two million of which are expected to be in circulation by the end of 2016.

Teachers can choose from a library of over 100 destinations such as Mars, the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Wall of China.

The trips are collections of virtual reality panoramas—360° photo spheres, 3D images and video, ambient sounds—annotated with details, points of interest, and questions.

A Google representative arrived at 7 a.m. to unload the equipment and instruct three teachers on how to operate the view finder.

“As a social studies teacher, and just a lifelong learner, this is such a cool experience,” said Caitlyn Whitson, 8th grade American History teacher.

All 1,050 students, ranging from kindergarteners to almost-graduates, participated in the program, each class spending a half-hour in one of the sessions.

“The students wanted to take them home,” Wesztergom laughed. “They knew how much fun they had and they wanted to share it with everyone else.”

Whitson suggested that while everything worked out, it would have been better had the teachers been trained in advance so they could encourage the students a bit more on how amazing the program is.

“I had the students prepare questions because I thought a speaker would be coming in,” Whitson added, “so maybe Google could just give a little more of what’s expected of the teachers.”

The curriculum was developed by Google Expeditions’ partners: PBS, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History, the Planetary Society, and the Palace of Versailles.

“Google’s mission is to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful and this is an extension of that,” said Google spokesman Patrick Lenihan.

Supporting First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Reach Higher” initiative, which encourages students to complete their education past the high school level, Google Expeditions also takes students on virtual college tours, allowing them access to schools across the country that they may not be able to afford to visit.

An extension of that program, Google Expeditions teams with the Starfish Foundation to help students explore future careers by taking them through a virtual day in the life of professionals in various fields.

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