5 Engaging Virtual Field Trips to Take

A couple weeks ago, I embarked on a weeklong, overnight field trip with a group of fifth- and sixth-graders. I’ll be reflecting more on the experience in my next article, but I was particularly struck by how much the students were learning through hands-on activities. Instead of hearing about a concept secondhand, they explored and experienced it themselves.

Unfortunately, these kinds of offsite learning experiences are not always possible. Tighter budgets and high fuel costs have resulted in many districts decreasing — and in some cases eliminating altogether — the number of field trips taken by students each year. Luckily, technology has given students the opportunity to explore beyond their classroom walls without ever leaving their desks.

I think the key to a successful virtual field trip is giving students the freedom to freely explore a site. What makes field trips so effective is there is a level of spontaneity involved. If something grabs a student’s attention, they can get closer, ask questions, and learn more about it.

The following virtual field trips provide a similar experience through engaging visuals and a wealth of information to address student curiosities.

Google Lit Trips

Google Lit Trips take students on an interactive journey through the world of literary characters in an effort to connect literature to the real world. Offered as free, downloadable files, the trips use Google Earth to help students follow their favorite characters and explore a book’s setting.

Throughout the journey, supplementary information — including photos, drawings, text, and maps — pop up to encourage critical thinking. The trips are organized by grade level and range from early childhood, with favorites like “Make Way for Ducklings” by Robert McCloskey, to high school, featuring classics like “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Visit the site.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The virtual tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History allows students to explore the entire museum, room by room on a desktop computer or tablet. Once inside, students can zoom in or out of the 360-degree environment to get a closer look at all of the museum’s exhibits.

Additionally in its education section, the museum offers teachers free lesson plans and classroom resources that can be used in conjunction with the virtual tour to teach various science and natural history topics, including anthropology, biodiversity, and astronomy. Visit the site.

UPM Forest Life

Stunning visuals and realistic sound effects give students the opportunity to learn about forest sustainability through a virtual hike at UPM Forest Life.  Along the way, students examine various plants and animals in their natural habitat, and meet the people who rely on the forest for work, resources, or recreation through images, text, and videos.

Topics explored on the hike include forest planning, harvesting, regeneration, natural habitats, hunting, and fishing. Engaging and expansive, the site offers an enormous amount of information about a world that most students don’t have access to each day. Visit the site.

Inside the White House

Students explore the White House floor by floor on this interactive tour, which can be used to supplement social studies curriculum on the elementary level and U.S. history classes in high school. Photos, video, and text present the historical significance of various rooms throughout America’s most famous house and also describe what the rooms are used for today.

Throughout the tour, students are exposed to fun facts about the building and the presidents who have called it their home. The site also offers a visual tour of the west wing and a series of videos to give students a closer look at what happens behind the scenes at the White House. Visit the site.

4-H Virtual Farm

The 4-H Virtual Farm offers students the opportunity to examine six kinds of farms: horse, beef, dairy, poultry, wheat, and fish. Each farm site is very easy to navigate and uses text, images, and video to explain why farming is important and how it relates to students — even those who live in the middle of a city.

Students can also meet farmers and read about why they do what they do. Though this virtual field trip is not as visually stimulating as others, the information provided is hard to beat and is presented in a way that is accessible to multiple grade levels. Visit the site.

Lisandra I. Flynn spent 2012 to 2014 working toward a master’s degree in elementary education while working full time as an editor. After seven years in publishing, she recently transitioned from corporate life to student teach fifth grade in an elementary school. Flynn shares her journey from the office to the classroom and offers insight and advice to those seeking their own career change.

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