Distant Discovery: Virtual Field Trips from the Classroom

Developing products to improve learning experiences in the classroom

by Jon Roepke

A hot area in K-12 education technology is giving students immersive learning experiences.

As a director of product management at an EdTech company, my job is to help develop products that can improve those learning experiences inside and outside the classroom.

Utilizing high-speed data connections and video conferencing tools, PORTS enables park rangers to interact with kids in real time, taking them on virtual field trips in 15 California State Parks.

Bringing State Parks Into the Classroom

One partnership where we’ve had great success is with a distance learning program established by the California State Parks called PORTS (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students®).

PORTS was created over 15 years ago to provide public schools in low-income areas in California with inventive ways to incorporate field trip experiences, which schools may not otherwise be able to provide their students. Today there are more than 6.1 million students enrolled in public schools in California (Pre-K - 12), yet only approximately 200,000 kids get to the chance to visit a state park in person.

As you might remember from your childhood, field trips are fun and engaging ways for kids to learn science and history first hand and often leave real-world memories that can last a lifetime.

Virtual field trip locations range from the Redwood forests of the North Coast to the Anza-Borrego Desert to Point Lobos State Natural on the rugged Big Sur coast. Areas of study include topics such as Kelp Forests, Redwood Ecology, Monarch Butterfly Migration, and historical subjects like the Gold Rush.

Park Rangers like Francesca Manheim (pictured, above) turn their utility vehicles into mobile studios to give kids an up-close perspective on the natural world.

Where they used to use a clunky laptop-based system, we gave them the Belkin Tablet Stage, an integrated tablet-based presentation platform. This allows them to use the iPad as a document camera and video presentation system to better showcase the natural world in its infinite detail.

The tablets are much easier for park rangers to carry and move around. In addition, the video quality is better. The accompanying Stage app lets rangers annotate over live video and draw on the screen, enabling a truly interactive learning experience.

Speaking to the Entire Classroom

On the classroom side, using the Tablet Stage eliminates the need for schools to have a dedicated and expensive video conferencing system. Instead, all they need is an iPad or other tablet device, an internet connection and a software-based video conferencing platform (like Skype, Zoom and many others).

Utilizing the Tablet Stage in the classroom, teachers can customize the view for their students so that the park rangers can see the entire classroom and speak directly with students.

This gives students the opportunity to ask questions, engage in conversations and annotate their experience with park staff in real-time, without leaving the classroom.

Mari Venturino, a 7th grade science and AVID teacher and blended learning specialist in San Diego, Calif., uses the program in her classroom. “My students really enjoyed the personal interaction they had with the rangers. The rangers are genuinely excited to share their knowledge with young people. My students were highly attentive and engaged as Ranger Francesca illustrated ideas and answered their questions by displaying and annotating graphics right on the screen. It was a very simple video presentation system—just her iPad and the Tablet Stage App by Belkin.”

The PORTS program continues to be a huge success.

“In the fourteen years I’ve been working with PORTS, I’ve seen the program grow dramatically due to the advancements and access to technology,” said Brad Krey, California State Parks’ Interpretation and Education Program Manager. “Since the program’s inception, it will surpass serving a half a million kids, totaling 13,000 presentations in over 15 years. Faster internet speeds, improved hardware, and software-based video conferencing programs, allow for a much more seamless experience for students, teachers and park rangers.”

PORTS doesn’t just serve students in California, it’s available to children anywhere in the world!  Last year, pupils from 38 states across the nation as well as in countries around the world, including Australia, Brazil, India, the Republic of Georgia, Serbia and Taiwan, participated in the program. This year PORTS will serve approximately 75,000 students around the globe. And the program has been a huge success - 85 percent of teachers surveyed graded their overall experience an “A.”

A Real-World (Environmental) Lesson

At my company, we are proud to support PORTS as a technology partner. Seeing kids’ eyes light up when they interact with the rangers is an amazing experience. We are working with PORTS to constantly find new ways to give students new ways of seeing the wonders of nature.

Park rangers regularly use GoPro cameras mounted on kayaks to provide an underwater view of the kelp forests.

PORTS illustrates how the creative use of technology can provide transformative educational experiences to a broader range of students than ever before.

By doing so, we are able to engage and inspire the next generation about our precious natural environment and their place in helping to preserve it.

FETC January 27 - 30, 2019

To discover the delight & impact of virtual learning firsthand, join Belkin’s Phil Alfonso & PORTS’ Brad Krey & Francesca Manheim at their session Monday, Jan. 28 at 5 pm - park ranger demo included!

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