California science students travel to Arizona – virtually


Margaret Coulombe

Middle school students from San Carlos, Calif., embarked on a “virtual field trip” to the Arizona State University laboratory of Quentin Wheeler last month, part of preparation for expansion of the ASU-Smithsonian online learning partnerships.

Twenty-two fifth- and sixth-graders from teacher Ben Sibrack's science class in San Carlos Charter Learning Center visited with Wheeler, director of the International Institute of Species Exploration and professor in the Global Institute of Sustainability, and Charles Kazilek, the assistant dean of technology, media and communications in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

As reported in the Times, the "virtual field trip" was made possible through a high-definition videoconferencing. Vidyo, the company behind the technology used in this classroom experience, ASU classrooms and Smithsonian Institution, promotes it as a way for students in budget-strapped schools to explore the world without leaving the classroom.

The story notes that the “class spent an hour conversing with Wheeler, his face displayed on a screen that was often split into two or more images, some showing close-ups of various beetle species. Wheeler, a taxonomist and entomologist, showed off a black beetle that emits a foul odor when disturbed. Kazilek, noting the exotic locations where new insect species are discovered, pitched the kids on pursuing careers in science.

“What we need are young students that want to go out and explore the world," Kazilek told the Times. "What we need are young Indiana Jones and Janes."

According to Vidyo sources, the San Carlos virtual classroom was equipped with a MacBook plugged into an HD monitor and an off-the-shelf webcam. Students were able to talk with ASU scientists and see the hundreds of insects being studied in ASU insect collections.

An iPad 2 also was connected to the videoconference so that the students could pass it around and personally see content shared from ASU. The students also used the iPad 2’s back camera to show Wheeler and Kazilek their own collection of insects. A special visitor also came (in person) to experience the virtual activities: U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier.

The director of the charter school, Chris Mahoney notes that his students reacted to the engagement “the same as if they were actually there.”

“We find these virtual classroom visits complement our global classroom initiative at ASU. Using Vidyo, students from around the world in K-12, higher education, their teachers and experts can easily meet and learn from each other,” says Kazilek.

ASU laid the groundwork for such virtual online partnerships and classrooms in 2011, fostering exchange between the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and ASU undergraduate and graduate life sciences students. Building on these strengths, ASU has launched a K-12 virtual classroom project titled “Desert to Rainforest: a middle school learning experience for diverse cultures and habitats in Arizona and Panama.” Using Vidyo, the program links middle school children from underserved schools in Phoenix with their contemporaries in Panama and underscores advancement of teacher training, cultural awareness and critical thinking. This effort is supported by a $100,000 grant award from the Smithsonian, with resources provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The ASU project is led by David Pearson, a research professor in the School of Life Sciences, in partnership with Mary Lou Fulton Teacher’s College, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Audubon Arizona and Ask A Biologist, ASU’s online science resource for teachers and children created by Kazilek.