Virtual Field Trips

By Beacon Staff

In the past month, in an effort to reduce the urge to break into tears at the pump, I’ve been reading stories that detail the good or quirky trends resulting from rising gas prices. For instance, reporter Dan Testa recently wrote about how, even in truck country, fuel-efficient vehicles are becoming a higher priority and how high gas prices have meant big business for one local company. Over the last year, sales have doubled at Great Scoot! motor scooters in Kalispell.

A story this weekend in the Christian Science Monitor highlights another offbeat trend: virtual field trips. With fuel prices rocketing, the story says some schools are discovering virtual field trips as a cost-effective way to add new – or farther afield – excursions. With the program, “US students can talk with divers on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, practice their Spanish with kids in Costa Rica, or listen to stories told by Pearl Harbor survivors at the USS Arizona memorial in Hawaii.” One class spoke with a NASA educator when Pluto was demoted as a planet.

Evidently, the technology for these virtual field trips has been around for years, but without the push of rising travel costs and other contributing factors – more schools with broadband, wider options for trips, and falling prices for teleconference systems – it just hadn’t caught on. Unfortunately, given the ongoing struggle in Montana over school funding and recent cuts at state public schools, it seems unlikely that this state’s students will experience this technology anytime soon.

All in all, I found the idea of virtual tours fascinating and encouraging – a chance for education truly without borders. Still, as some of the educators in the story noted, I was worried schools would replace the real thing with the virtual. One author who was quoted put it well, “What kids are missing now is not information. What they need most is the hands-dirty, feet-wet experience in nature.”

There’s something glorious about taking field trips when you’re a kid. You’re out of the classroom, free of books and the excursions are ripe for mischief. One of my favorite childhood memories is of a third-grade field trip to the County Courthouse in Billings via the city’s public bus system.

Just a few weeks out of knee surgery, I was hindered by a toe-to-thigh, hot pink cast, but was so insistent on not missing out that my parents agreed to rent a wheelchair for the occasion. I, of course, let my best friend push the wheelchair. In the four-block walk to the bus stop, she ran the wheelchair off the curb four times – a vertically-challenged individual, it’s doubtful she could even see where she was going. We did wheelies and raced friends. I got to use the buses wheelchair lift and ride in the same elevator at the courthouse that they used to transport the accused.

And, that – no matter how cool the virtual tour – is impossible to replicate.