CHARLOTTESVILLE — When they held the cardboard contraptions to their faces, they were transported to a coral reef. Then, the surface of the moon. Then, the Congo — a thick jungle pressed in on the viewer on all sides.

Suddenly, Chloe Sweet, an Eastern Hancock Elementary third-grader, screamed aloud.

“It’s a gorilla!”

A representative from Google visited Eastern Hancock Elementary this week to provide an all-day sampling of the virtual field trips available on Google Expeditions, a program Google is testing that creates 360-degree experiences for use in the classroom.

Story continues below gallery

The Expeditions Pioneer Program allows teachers to guide students through their choice of 100 trips. They can visit famous landmarks, landscapes, areas of historical significance, even famous paintings. For students, a simple cardboard viewfinder holding a smartphone can bring a textbook lesson to life.

The Expeditions Pioneer Program is putting on free programs in schools around the world in order to tout the virtual reality program, which seeks to integrate technology into the classroom.

Schools may sign up for the program by getting at least six interested teachers to submit their information to Google. Schools are visited based on the amount of interest. Google representatives are visiting schools in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Singapore and Denmark during the 2015-16 school year.

Teachers control the experience with a tablet, while students watch and look around on smartphones inside a holder, a simple device made mostly of cardboard with special lenses inside aimed at making images appear three-dimensional.

The teachers’ tablet has notes about the details of each particular field trip and can control the experience for as many as 50 students at a time. The smartphones have Wi-Fi to connect them to the virtual realm but are not set up to make or receive calls or texts, ensuring students aren’t tempted to misuse the digital devices.

Teachers direct students to a particular sight within the 360-degree world with a simple tap on their tablet screen; the students’ phones then respond, showing an arrow prompting them to look where the item is located.

Trisha Armstrong, director of technology at Eastern Hancock Elementary, said she thinks the apparatus will bring the educational experience to life for students in many different subjects.

She learned about Google Expeditions late last year and decided she was too excited to wait for the program to launch. She went ahead and purchased about 30 iPods and Viewmasters — an updated version of the holder, adapted for smartphones — and has been testing a few different virtual reality apps.

Google is promoting both its teacher-led tour program and its cardboard smartphone holder, Armstrong said. She said she prefers the sturdier plastic Viewmasters for use by elementary-age students, but she looks forward to Google’s official release of the teacher program for classroom use.

Second-through fifth-graders at Eastern got to try out the equipment Monday, but the devices can be used to educate all ages, said Jason Howard, associate for the Google Expeditions Pioneer program.

The cardboard smartphone holder is available now, while the teacher-controlled tour guide program is expected to be released in the fall, he said.

Corey Pasman’s third-grade class sampled the expeditions available on Monday morning. He used a tablet computer to direct students to look at particular areas, such as a hot-air balloon high in the sky, or a diver in a deep oceanic landscape.

Pasman said he was amazed by the students’ response to the smartphone field trips.

“If I wanted to give the kids an in-depth experience, this is what I’d use,” he said. “You don’t get these ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from looking at normal pictures — it’s very engaging.”

Eastern Hancock Schools superintendent Vicki McGuire said the Expeditions software could be adapted to nearly any subject. She envisioned using it along with reading a book, to help bring the book to life for students.

How does it work?

The Google Expeditions Pilot Program combines a simple cardboard holder and a digital device to bring students a virtual reality experience. Here’s how it works:

  • The Google Cardboard folds into a crude viewfinder, which is lightweight but sturdy enough to support the weight of a digital device, usually a smartphone.
  • The smartphone is placed inside the viewfinder, which students then hold up to their eyes.
  • The Google Expeditions app displays a 360-degree image, allowing students to see something new whenever they move their head, just as though they were there. Teachers, who track their students’ views on an iPad, can direct their attention to certain parts of the image with a simple tap, which puts arrows on their students’ screens.
Author photo
Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or rhatcher@greenfieldreporter.com.