Thursday, April 17, 2008

Virtual Touring

Field trips cost money and require planning, class time and chaperones, which can be hard to come by when most parents work full-time. Plus, leaving for a day or half-day separates students from resources in the classroom and you have to rely on them remembering enough of what you feel is the important stuff for it all to come together in class. Virtual tours can help with all of that. They are free, can be integrated into a lesson plan or unit, require no extra people to keep middle schoolers within bounds, and can be returned to again and again with no extra expense or planning. At Michigan Reach Out!, below a list of real-life tours, you can find a list of virtual tours that students anywhere can "take" in or out of class:
  • Remember the Los Angeles River? Me neither. The Target Science Los Angeles River Virtual Tour allows students to follow the river digitally from the San Fernando Valley headwaters to the end at Long Beach. The tour stop at 12 different points along the river with pictures of and text on the history, plants, animals and architecture along the river.
  • Texas A&M University's Department of Geology offers a virtual hike in Big Bend National Park. (The home page has lots of other options, like a page on the changes in Big Bend over time.) This tour also features pictures of flora that can be enlarged for closer viewing. One picture shows biological erosion caused by lichen. For students from very different climates and regions, this can be eye-opening and a very cool supplement to any paper lesson or textbook.
  • The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, FL, offers a virtual tour plus information on wildlife, science, and land management. The virtual tour follows the 2.25 mile boardwalk trail in the sanctuary. The trail "takes visitors through several distinct habitats found within the 11,000-acre Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, including the largest remaining virgin bald cypress forest in North America." The text is very readable but the pictures can't be enlarged for closer viewing or for students with sight problems. Like other virtual tours, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary tour's strength is in giving students pictures to go along with the names of areas, ecosystems, flora and fauna.
  • Journey through Tikal, sponsored by Studio360, moves students through the ancient ruins of the Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala. This is a great chance to see some of a top tourist attraction. Quicktime is needed to see the pictures. Students can go through the tour using navigation tabs or can click "hotspots" on maps located on each page. Clicking on a hotspot reveals a picture and some text about the particular building or area of the city. The pictures have zoom capabilities so students can "get closer." At the page for the Great Plaza, for example, sounds of howling monkeys give a taste of what the jungle surrounding the city sounded like in ancient times and even today.
  • The Virtual Cave features four different virtual cave tours--the original Virtual Cave, a Lava Tube cave, a Sea Cave, and Erosional and Glacier Caves. The cave pages are packed with pictures and informative text. Each page also emphasises safe exploring of any real cave and offers links for more information or detail, such as a map of Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island, CA.
  • The Yerkes Observatory Virtual Tour offers pictures that can be enlarged for closer viewing and links to see the outside of the observatory as well as the interior. Students can also see pictures of labs and instruments being used for research right now. They can also see the skylight in the rotunda near the main doors, read about the telescopes on site, and learn about past research at Yerkes, including work by Sherburne Burnham and Gerard Kuiper. The page on current research at Yerkes hasn't been updated since 1998. That could be a great challenge for a class, to research what is currently going on at Yerkes. The site also has a link for you to find other observatory virtual tours.
Even though most of these tours lack the kind of interactivity that is guaranteed to draw even reluctant students in, the chance to see far-flung places even in 2-D is exciting. These tours offer specialized information that can supplement classroom or home study. Are there virtual tours that you've had particular success with? Or any to avoid?

SOURCE: "Listing of Tours in the Southeastern Michigan Area" 3/22/08
photo courtesy of CarbonNYC, used under this Creative Commons license

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