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Sixth-grade students at Rincon Middle School in Escondido take part in the Google Expeditions Pioneer Pilot Program, which provides virtual field trips across the globe. Humanities teacher Christine Hansen applied to have the program come to the school. Photo by Steve Puterski
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Escondido students take virtual field trips around the world

ESCONDIDO — Students at Rincon Middle School went global on Tuesday.

The middle schoolers took part in the Google’s Expeditions Pioneer Pilot Program.

Using the Google Cardboard device, a cellphone encased in cardboard, the students use an app specifically designed for educational purposes to take them on a virtual tour of historical world landmarks.

“Too often, kids don’t get the opportunity to go on field trips,” said Google Expeditions Program Manager Jen Holland. “Teachers can teleport their students to these places. Also, it brings these abstract lessons to life.”

Google’s one-day program has chosen select schools in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Singapore and Denmark.

For RMS, though, the Escondido school was selected after sixth-grade humanities teacher Christine Hansen sent an application. She said it was a quick process — about six weeks from applying.

RMS received word about two weeks ago and several Google employees came with the kits.

The school was able to coax Google into supplying enough devices for each social studies/humanities classes so each of the 1,225 students could participate.

“These are places that they’ll probably never to get to travel to, and we are bringing it to them,” Hansen said. “Using the cardboard with it, it makes it real and accessible.”

The benefits, meanwhile, left Hansen, Principal Beth Crooks and Escondido Union School District Superintendent Dr. Luis Ibarra impressed. The trio said the virtual field trips now make subject matter, such as Greek or Aztec ruins, tangible and not just words on a page.

As for the students’ reaction, the first time a new location was introduced, a chorus of “ohhhs” and “ahhhs” filled the air.

“This is exciting for us,” Ibarra said. “I see students fully engaged and they are going places around the world. It brings social studies to life. When you see this level of engagement, it brings a whole new level to it.”

Working the device, meanwhile, is simple. A student places the cardboard, which has two eyeholes cut out to see the phone, over their face like glasses. From there, the teacher has a tablet, which is connected to a wireless Internet network, and can tap the destination.

On the tablet’s screen, a series of smiley faces show the teacher all the students “on site.” In addition, the view is in 2-D and 3-D as Google’s team scoured the globe using 16 GoPro cameras to capture every angle possible of the destinations.

“It’s a collection of a virtual reality pyramid,” Holland said. “We’ve built this, really, with the school and classroom in mind. For us, it really needed to be a seamless experience and we also didn’t want to rely on Internet constraints that schools may have.”

In Kevin Hemingway’s sixth-grade class, where Hansen joined in assisting, students visited Aztec sites in Mexico such as Chichen Itza, the famous city of Teotihuacan and Teotenago Aztec ruins in New Mexico.

Students also visited places such as the Coliseum in Rome, underwater adventures in the Galapagos Islands and Caribbean and even a trip to Mars.

“It makes it feel like you are there and it’s a stronger reaction,” Hansen said.

As for the devices, RMS will not keep the ones used Tuesday, although Hansen, Crooks and Ibarra said they will discuss the availability with Google about securing the new tools in the coming months.

“That would be so great about having just a class set for the schools because of the timeliness of it,” Crooks added.

As for Google, the San Francisco-based tech company began developing what would evolve into Expeditions last year, Holland said. Coding began in January and the first pilot program started in several countries in March.

In September, Google expanded the program leading to Hansen’s application.

As for the future availability to schools, Holland said more data is needed before the company decides to allow sales to schools and districts.

“We’ll really see later in the school year,” she added.