Google’s virtual reality viewer comes to the classroom

March 18th, 2016

virtual reality

Virtual reality program is part of a worldwide beta testing initiative

Students in Melinda Lamm’s fifth-grade class at Wells Elementary School in North Carolina were in the computer lab, but not a single student was looking at a computer screen. Instead, they were all peering through small cardboard boxes.

“Ok, where are we now?” Lamm asked over the excited voices of her students. They began to call out different places until they all agreed on Mars. How was this possible with a cardboard box? Google it.

Each student was actually looking through Google Cardboard, which is a virtual reality viewer made almost entirely of cardboard with a smartphone loaded with a special app placed inside.

The viewers are a part of the Google Expeditions Pioneer Program — a program still in development by Google and being field tested in schools around the globe. More than half a million students have participated as Beta testers since September.

Lamm controlled the screens of the smartphones with a tablet enabling her to take the students on a virtual field trip.

As the students moved their heads from side to side and up and down, more of the landscape emerged. They were able to conclude they were on Mars because the landscape was barren, red and rocky.

The images they saw were collections of virtual reality panoramas. The Wildlife Conservation Society, PBS, the American Museum of National History, the Planetary Society and the Palace of Versailles contributed to developing the curriculum.


Once the students finished the lesson, they went into the media center to debrief with Patrick McClanahan, a representative from Google.

He asked the students what features they would add and how to improve the experience.

Several students suggested adding Minecraft locations, more audio and visible avatars. Because the program is still in development, Google is taking any and all feedback seriously.

The opportunity was made possible at Wells by Media Specialist Suzanne Rusnak. She heard about the program several months ago and went online to indicate that students at her school would be willing to serve as Beta testers if the opportunity arose.

Weeks went by and then Rusnak got an email from Google saying that they were going to be in the Wilson area in March. She collaborated with Principal Wendy Sullivan and Instructional Technology Facilitator Suzanne Colbert to fill out the paperwork and secure the visit.

The date was set for March 8 and Google agreed to bring all of the necessary equipment — tablets, phones and Cardboard viewers — which unfortunately all went back with McClanahan at the end of the day.

“Our students greatly benefited from being a part of the Beta version of this expedition,” Sullivan said. “They were allowed an opportunity to explore with their teachers and Mr. McClanahan. Knowing they were able to give their own feedback to Google is a rewarding experience.”

Real world application

Google only offers this opportunity to students that are ages 7 and up and requires at least 18 unique classes for the activity. Since the age requirement eliminated kindergarten and first grades, Wells contacted the principals at Hearne and Vick elementary schools to see if they would like to send students from their Tech Team to participate.

“We teach our kids to be leaders and with this opportunity, that’s what they were,” Sullivan said. “They shared their thoughts and opinions, which will be used to help Google make sound decisions. That’s real world application and experience. I’m very proud of the staff and students for their synergy today.”

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