Taking a field trip to the moon, sort of

students, virtual reality
Students at Aquarian experience Google Expeditions using Google Cardboard. (Hillman/KSKA)

Today, we’re taking you on a school field trip. First we’ll stop by a shark tank before heading up to the moon. What? You want to swing by the Eiffel Tower on the way? No problem. Some Anchorage schools are experimenting with virtual reality.

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A group of fifth and sixth graders sit in the Aquarian School library. At least their physical bodies are there. What they see is outer space.

“Oh my god, there’s Earth!” shouts Nysherie Hardy. “It’s right on your side. It’s so small!”

The students are on their way to the moon. Pressed to their faces are small cardboard boxes that are shaped like heavy duty goggles. The kids look through small plastic lenses into a sideways cell phone that shows 360 degree images of space. As they move their heads they see different views — the moon over that way, stars up above.

“It’s weird looking down and not being able to see yourself,” says Nysherie.

“It’s very dark,” chimes in Shelbi Craft.

They say it’s a bit disorienting. “It’s like you’re there but you’re not really there but you want to be there,” explains Nysherie.

The students are experimenting with Google’s new virtual reality program, Expeditions. The company and its partners have created more than 150 virtual tours of everything from coral reefs to the peaks of Everest and the Great Wall of China to Machu Picchu. English classes can visit literary sites in London. Science classes can check out dinosaur fossils at the Natural History Museum in New York City. Google used high definition 360 degree cameras that capture an area from all angles. With the simulator, you can’t interact with anything, but you feel like you are in the space.

Ross Johnson with the educational technology department at the Anchorage School District says his department is exploring the technology because it gives students a chance to experience the world beyond Alaska.

“It’s kind of in its infancy right now, so we’re really doing a lot of testing with it and looking at it to see what we can do with it. I think it’s great technology to get students to see things they usually don’t get to see.”

Though the device holders are relatively cheap, about $30 for plastic versions, in order for the program to work, the teacher needs to have an Android tablet that is connected via a router to Android phones. Johnson says they are looking into ways to make it available throughout the district. The program is still in it’s beta form. Google is doing test run with schools around the world, but it’s not publicly available yet.

After the kids leave the moon, they make one last stop: the Congo. The room erupts into chaos and yelling as the kids notice a Mountain Gorilla right next to them.

“I wasn’t expecting it!” says one student. “And it looked so real!” says another.

Nysherie shrieks along with the crowd but loves it. “I never thought I’d be, like, able to see these things, but with this, we can. It’s cool.”

Students in Wasilla and at the University of Alaska – Anchorage will also test out the devices.

After being told innumerable times that maybe she asked too many questions, Anne Hillman decided to pursue a career in journalism. She's reported from around Alaska since 2007 and briefly worked as a community radio journalism trainer in rural South Sudan.
ahillman (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8447  |  About Anne

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