Heights students travel the world thanks to virtual reality technology
Heights students travel the world thanks to virtual reality technology
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Students at Pattonville Heights Middle School recently stood atop an Andes mountain and took in the 360-degree view of Machu Picchu in Peru, one of the greatest archaeological and natural treasures in the world. Or at least that’s the way it felt.

Thanks to the magic of virtual reality (VR), social studies students at Heights made virtual visits to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu as part of their studies of the Incan culture, all without leaving their classrooms. Machu Picchu is the site of a former Incan citadel and includes the ruins of temples, palaces, dwellings and architectural terraces. It has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The students’ virtual field trips were made possible after the Pattonville technology services department repurposed about 30 old smartphones the district would have otherwise surplussed and combined them with VR headsets purchased for $2 a piece on clearance. Technology personnel loaded the Google Expeditions app on the phones, and they were ready to go - all over the world.

“You guys are taking a $2,500 field trip for free,” said Heights teacher Scott Hutson as he explained to his class what they were about to do. District technology specialist Randy Gindler was on hand to help set up the headsets and troubleshoot any issues. The classes also received support from Ryan Sullivan, system administrator in the technology services department.
During the experience, teachers narrated the virtual field trip, explaining to students what they were seeing and the history behind it. Hutson’s classroom filled with audible gasps  and squeals of delight as he moved between one scene and another. A section of what the students viewed on their headsets was projected on a large screen with dozens of swirling white circles denoting where students were looking in real time. Students could rotate in their seats and see any number of views - in front, behind, above and below them.

"Many people never get the opportunity to travel to a place like Machu Picchu, and when students are learning about this Incan city, they can't visualize its beauty,” Hutson said. “This VR activity was a way to take them there, to put them up on that mountain, without ever leaving their classroom chair. Their excitement and engagement was the justification of the lesson."  

Teacher Madeline Marren said she couldn’t wait to use the VR sets again in her classes.

"I was able to act as a tour guide and point out important key places as if we were actually there,” she said. “The VR goggles heightened their senses and gave them a feeling of actually being in this ancient Incan city. I was excited to do this lesson with the kids and loved hearing their excitement when we toured the city.”

Hutson said it was “an amazing activity, and I look forward to taking the students on another new adventure later this year.”

Other teachers in the district have also expressed interest in using the sets, including a high school modern language teacher who wants to help his students “travel” to foreign countries to better appreciate the culture they talk about in class.

Gindler said students could continue taking world expeditions on their own. The Expeditions app is free and can be used without a VR headsets, or families can purchase inexpensive cardboard VR headsets online to work with their own phones.

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Students in Madeline Marren’s social studies class experience the wonder of Machu Picchu.

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Students in Scott Hutson’s class listen as their teacher narrates the virtual field trip.