Maiden Voyage for Virtual Explorers
Hop on the VR School Bus!
Posted on 11/02/2017
Three students using virtual reality headsets in a classroom.

Students in use VR headsets in the classroom.Three large and mysterious boxes sat at the front of the Fairview Middle School classroom. The only clues to the contents was a short video clip from the show, “The Magic School Bus.” Plus their teacher, Melodee Samson, wore a colorful skirt and changed her name to “Ms. Smizzle.”

“Today, you are the first students ever to go on a virtual expedition!” said Samson to her sixth grade social studies class.

"I think we get to use VR headsets!" Kaden, a student, whispered to his neighbors. "No way, that would be crazy," they responded—virtual reality (VR) headsets are common in video gaming, not middle school classrooms.

And yet, when Samson revealed the contents of the boxes, there were 30 VR headsets—plastic goggles that hold a smartphone with the Google Expeditions app—one for every student.

Google Expeditions is a teaching tool that allows students to swim with sharks, visit a museum, or explore the Great Wall of China. Melodee Samson and Jaime Patnode, another Fairview social studies teacher, were able to purchase the headsets with an Innovation Award. The district grant allows staff to pursue creative ways to improve education and operations in schools.

Journey to South Africa

Teachers Melodee Samson and Jaime Patnode.

For their first expedition, Samson and Patnode guided students on a journey through South Africa, including a visit to the Cape of Good Hope, National Botanical Garden, a soccer stadium, and the prison where Nelson Mandela was held. Teachers paired the virtual expedition with their studies on the African continent.

Samson asked students to close their eyes before each stop on their virtual field trip. When she revealed each location, students were gasping with wonder, their hands reaching out or pointing to something that existed beyond the classroom walls. When asked to reflect on the experience, a student named Giana said, “I liked everything!”

Teaching with Technology

"The hope is that the students would be more engaged since they had just visited the area and saw what it looked like," said Patnode.  The students also practiced reading and writing strategies. In addition to assigned reading, she said, "students choose to read an article about Africa because they wanted to know more, not because we told them to." 

The Expeditions curriculum is one way teachers are infusing their lessons with new technologies. "We have created more engaging lessons,” said Patnode. “It has reinforced and added one more layer to the students’ educational experience."

"Kids that normally aren't engaged were 100% in today," said Samson, “One of my students that is usually withdrawn actually jumped out of their seat and asked the whole class, ‘Raise your hands if you think this is awesome!’” All hands were up.