Adrian, a fourth grader from High Tech elementary North County, stood inside a crater of an extinct volcano. He contemplated where to go next- either up the trail to his right to walk along the ancient lava flow, or straight up the sheer columns of rock that make up the volcanic plug. He chose to climb straight up. An informational video of his classmates teaching about igneous rock popped up in front of him. He smiled and pulled off the virtual reality headset saying, “This looks so real. I can’t believe we made it.”
Adrian was testing out the product he and fellow fourth-graders had made for the latest iteration of the “Rock On!” project. For the past several years my co-teachers and I have led different versions of “Rock On!”, a geology project whose purpose is to connect our students with the natural wonders of San Diego County, while also tackling questions about earth’s history and digging into the NGSS Earth Sciences standards. In the past we have excavated fossils to add to the collection at the San Diego Natural History Museum, written informational geology comics for distribution through the NAT’s loan library, and created a website to connect our community to our local geological treasures. Last summer, a group from Stanford University asked me if I wanted to design a project using the virtual reality tools they were developing. I was hesitant, since that sounded like the opposite of “getting outside and exploring natural wonders,” but I decided to give it a try, and our fourth-graders used an online resource called ThingLink to stitch together student-created media to create a series of virtual reality hikes that interpret geological treasures in our local area. I’m pleased to say my concerns were unfounded: the virtual reality took our kids deeper into the natural world.
The first impetus for creating our virtual product wasn’t virtual at all. Early in the semester, the fourth-graders and I set off on a walk from school to explore the landscape around us. Our school is located in a suburban setting, and yet the students returned to school with notebooks full of questions, pockets full of rocks, and an eagerness to learn more about earth’s history. Their questions ranged from the seemingly straightforward “What kind of rock is this?” (which led to more questions like, “What are the kinds of rocks?” and “How are they defined, anyway?”) to an approximation of our essential question: “How has this place changed?” But my favorite question was stated after much reflection: “Wouldn’t it be cool if, like, you could find out?”
Though my students didn’t know it then, that question was addressing what naturalists call “interpretation”. When you go out in nature there is nothing to “interpret” or “speak for” the rocks and landforms, so you don’t know what you’re looking at. A google-conversant adult can go home and find out a certain amount of information, but kids are stymied by both their lack of contextual knowledge, and the expansiveness of their questions—imagine trying to google “What was my school like during the time of the dinosaurs?” or “What kind of rock is this?” Of course if you go on a walk with a guide such as a park ranger or a naturalist, you get answers to those questions. The students were envisaging a guide like that—specifically for geology—whenever they wanted it.
After some clarification and discussion we all agreed on the central problem and therefore the purpose in our own work: The rocks have no labels. The landforms have no signs. In our community there is no tour guide. But what if there was? What if someone made—no, what if WE made—this information available? We could learn about geology and share the information with others. We could make interpreted virtual reality hikes to better connect our community to our local geology.
It happened that during the summer an old friend got in touch: she was working on the Stanford Transforming Learning Accelerator and School of Earth and they were looking for an elementary teacher to test drive a virtual reality learning tool they were researching. While I love good educational research, I was hesitant to join the study. Coming out of a year of distance learning and isolation, I was eager to have my fourth-graders get out into nature, collaborate in person, and engage in hands-on investigations. Literally the last thing I wanted to do was put my students behind another screen, ever. And yet I was curious, what lessons have we learned about the power of technology to connect people across spaces? How could I capitalize on these tech-based tools to ensure an equitable educational experience for my budding scientists during in-person learning? Could using the right screen-based tools amplify the educational benefits of my beloved fieldwork? Plus, I have a teacher motto of never turning down offers of support, so I agreed to collaborate with the project.
Once the students identified their desire to interpret the geological history of our area, I was ready to introduce ThingLink to them as a way to create virtual tours.
Armed with a sense of purpose and a set of ipads, we set off on hikes around San Diego County. We used Google Street View to take photospheres (that is, spherical panoramas like what you see if you look at “street view” on a google map) from inside an (extinct) volcano and a slot canyon. We took pictures of the geological phenomena that intrigued us, such as examples of chemical erosion and layers of sediment. Students recorded videos of their teammates explaining geological processes on location, such as how fossils and mountains are formed. Importantly, we also took pictures of things we didn’t understand yet so we could remember to discuss them later. Students used photo editing tools to record their questions directly on their photos so that we could remember to research answers to them later.
Back in the classroom, the media we collected provided a means to dig deeper into our rich fieldwork experiences. By looking back at our pictures we could have conversations about the observations and wonderings we had in the field and dig deeper into concepts through shared research. Now in the familiar classroom setting, we used our photospheres to anchor our memories and began the work of linking together the photos and videos to recreate our hikes using the online ThingLink platform. We completed labs such as modeling igneous rock by making crystals from heated Borax, investigating erosion and the creation of sand by shaking sugar cubes, simulating the creation of canyons out in the sandbox, modeling the formation of fossils using molds and plaster, and investigating how the properties of magma influence the shape of a volcano using flour and water. We needed to better understand what we had seen so that we could explain it to others. We worked as a team to create a storyboard of the places we had visited, adding in vocabulary as we learned it, layering in examples from our photos, and making connections across fieldwork sites.
We worked together to build a narrative about how the geology of San Diego area has changed using the evidence of geological processes we had collected in the field. We divided into expert groups based on student interest and began combing through the vast media library we had collected to gather evidence for our topics. Students also came to the conclusion that we needed to create even more content. How would our visitors really understand how this canyon looked before? Wouldn’t some illustrations help? And wouldn’t it add to their understanding of crystals if we filmed ourselves creating one? And shouldn’t we show them some examples of the types of fossils from our collection? Partners started working on graphics to embed in their tours that would more thoroughly explain their topics, and we set up a recording studio for teams to film themselves interpreting related materials. Looking through my students’ folders in the evenings, I was struck by how much content my students understood and wanted to share with their community. Because we had given students options of how to share their understandings, all students had the opportunity to show off their deep content knowledge in their final product.
As we were finalizing our virtual tours and preparing for exhibition the Stanford researchers asked me to share my reflections: Did I find ThingLink to be a useful educational tool? Or, put another way, would I do this project again?
In that moment I felt unsure. I was in the weeds. I was overwhelmed by thousands of photos, videos that just would not upload, confusing links between group folders and incorrect share settings. I knew my students felt the same way: the joy of exploring nature through actual fieldwork experiences far surpassed the virtual fieldwork experiences we were making. There was also a looming issue of useability. We were creating virtual tours that work best through VR headsets on smartphones, devices that my students did not have. Had I just wasted all this time putting my students behind screens when we could have been doing something more valuable?
As a final step, students worked in larger site-based teams to connect their content into a larger, integrated virtual reality tour of each fieldwork site. This was our answer to that student’s question at the beginning of the project: “Wouldn’t it be cool if, like, you could find out?” Our virtual reality tour would interpret our local geology so that, at least in the “virtual reality” world, they had an interpretive layer available to them.
Within their teams students collaborated to share feedback on their work, and held Zoom meetings with our friends at Stanford for help with tech issues. Now virtual hikers could “walk” from one interpreted site along a trail to another and get a fieldwork experience that simulated the ones we had shared together. The technology had provided students tools to share their knowledge within a quality, beautiful product that was ready to be shared with our community.
Now it was time to share our work with the community: we held an exhibition on our school campus in a large outdoor space. We invited our entire school community and all the geology experts that had supported our work. On the day, guests arrived to find students excited to share their learning and love of geology. We organized our space into sections for the various hikes we had taken. In each section students shared information about the hike and interpreted the geological features using informational graphics they had created and interactive demonstrations of the earth’s processes we had seen there. Finally, students asked guests to scan a qr code, put on a cardboard VR headset, and “go” on the hike themselves.
The purpose of our work was to connect our community to our local geology. We thought maybe a virtual tour would help people to access spaces that they might not otherwise be able to, and also point out features that most hikers fail to notice or appreciate. One unexpected outcome of our product is that some families who attended our exhibition reported feeling more empowered to visit the fieldwork sites in real life after touring them virtually. Experiencing new places virtually seemed to give the families of some of our students the confidence and knowledge they felt they needed to go explore our area’s geology on their own. And in that way, perhaps ironically, putting my students behind screens did help them to get outside.