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New technology expands students' capacity for learning with virtual reality

They may never travel to the ancient Roman Colosseum or the Great Wall of China, but Grand Forks elementary students are seeing the wonders of the world without leaving their school.

Heidi Muus

They may never travel to the ancient Roman Colosseum or the Great Wall of China, but Grand Forks elementary students are seeing the wonders of the world without leaving their school.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the library recently at Lewis and Clark Elementary School, about a dozen students in Heidi Muus' fourth-grade class put on Google Expedition goggles and listened as Megan Solberg talked about what they were seeing.

"The first place we're going to is in India, to the Taj Mahal," Solberg said.

The kids twist and turn to view the 360-degree scenes in their goggles, as though they were actually at the monument.

On this day, Solberg takes the students on a tour of the Seven Wonders of the World and reads about each one from a table that interfaces with the goggles.


"The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his beloved third wife," she said. "It took more than 20,000 labors over 20 years to memorialize her memory."

Using the tablet, she directs students' attention with arrows to point to specific parts of the image students see.

"Over here is the mausoleum," she said.

The students are learning about places they could only imagine or dream about-like the Great Barrier Reef, Rio de Janeiro or Machu Picchu.

They also would visit some places where travel is out of the question-like the jungles of Borneo. Or inside the human body where, for example, they could see inside an aortic valve to better understand how plaque builds up and eventually causes a heart attack.

Hundreds of topics

The Google Expedition kit gives students the chance to explore more than 750 topics, Solberg said. "Animals, nature, killer whales, penguins."

It's a virtual field trip, without the expense of travel.


As a curriculum technology partner in the school district, Solberg works with elementary students at Lewis and Clark, Ben Franklin and Wilder schools, but the kids' reaction is always the same.

"Kids are so excited when they see me come in with the kits," Solberg said. "Whichever grade level they're in, they're just as fascinated."

She can pause the image, bring the kids back together to talk or write about what they've seen, she said. She can even draw on the image the students are viewing to further emphasize a piece of information.

In an age of digital media, this technology "is better for keeping kids engaged," she said.

Leslie Wiegandt, principal at Wilder Elementary, agreed.

Google Expedition is an important instructional tool for students because of its "engagement factor," she said. "It captivates with content and gives them choice. It's a win-win-win."

"There's a real-world connection. It's more applicable," Solberg said. "These are experiences they would not ordinarily have."

Some expeditions offer sound as well as the visual element, so more of the viewers' senses are engaged.


They can experience things like poisonous snakes or jungle treks without compromising safety.

The technology is especially valuable for students who tend to be "visual learners," Wiegandt said.

And the technology is familiar to a generation accustomed to using electronic devices.

"Kids today are more used to immediate gratification with what they're learning to do," she said. "Anytime you can move away from traditional paper and pencil-which do have a place-it's much more powerful."

Purchasing more

Last year, the Grand Forks Foundation for Education purchased 20 Google Expedition kits for use at all grade levels in the school system and plans to purchase 20 this year, said Emilia Hodgson, the foundation's executive director.

"With every addition, it increases the frequency we can have them," said Wiegandt. "That's very valuable."

The kits are shared, on a rotating basis, among the district's schools. Their use is managed by about a dozen curriculum technology partners, like Solberg, who are assigned to specific schools.


"Last year, each school could use the kits for one week; this year, each school will have them five times," Solberg said. "Next year, we'll have them ten times, potentially."

Back in the library at Lewis and Clark, the students got a close-up look at the Roman Colosseum.

"Yes!," said Matthew Torgerson. "This is where people fought to the death for sport."

Later, Matthew said the best part of using the goggles is "seeing all the views. Being up in the air, and seeing everything nice and clear."

When asked what she enjoyed most, Ella Peters, 10, said it was the ancient Chinese architectural masterpiece.

"The Great Wall of China," she said. "I always wanted to see it and learn facts about it.

"It is really really long."

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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