Strategy Share: Building Empathy Through Virtual Immersion

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Ali Farlow-Troy, a middle- and high-school science and physical education teacher in Toronto, Ontario, after her expedition to the Arctic. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for Pre-K-12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

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Ali Farlow-Troy teaches science and physical education to 7th- through 12th-graders at Branksome Hall in Toronto, Ontario. Photo courtesy Ali Farlow-Troy

Hanging off the bow of a ship called the National Geographic Explorer, watching a polar bear guide her cubs across the sea ice, witnessing a walrus nurse her calf, learning about the complexity of polar vegetation firsthand—these experiences had a profound impact on my understanding of both the vulnerability and resiliency of the High Arctic. The crew and scientists onboard helped stretch my thinking and left me feeling empowered to make decisions, even in the face of uncertainty.

Returning home from my Grosvenor Teacher Fellow experience, I became aware that my empathy with the environment had grown. The words of primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall especially resonated with me: “Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help.”

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A curious polar bear investigates the National Geographic Explorer. Photo by Ali Farlow-Troy

I was excited to go back to my classroom, inspired to help students investigate important questions related to climate change. Why is polar life so adaptable? How do mountains affect humanity? Is the decline of sea ice really something to be concerned about?

However, what I was most interested in when returning to my school was the question:

How can technology help build empathy in a classroom?

I want my students to get lost in learning and come out of the school year knowing that there is more to explore and more work to be done to address environmental issues. As an educator, I feel confident that the same passion and empathy I developed through my Arctic expedition experience can be translated into my curriculum through immersive learning tactics.

This school year, I investigated four new immersive teaching strategies and felt they all had a positive impact on my students as learners.

  1.      Breakout EDU

Breakout EDU is an immersive game platform that is fun for learners of all ages. Students work collaboratively to solve a series of critical-thinking puzzles in order to open a locked box. Breakout EDU offers a series of ready-made resources to fit your needs by subject. It also provides you with the tips and resources that will help you get started designing your own game.

My colleagues supported 11th-grade students in designing a breakout box catered to 8th-graders. The older students were given the creative freedom to develop clues that focused on the theme of exploration. Meanwhile, the younger students benefitted from the challenge of trying to solve the box.

  1.      Design Sprint

Students participate in a design sprint. Photo by Ali Farlow-Troy

The big idea with a design sprint is to build and test a prototype in just five days, empowering students to investigate an issue they are passionate about. Students work in small teams, and rapidly progress from problem to solution. I read the book Sprint by Jake Knapp, which proved to be very helpful when designing this project.

When our curriculum team implemented a design sprint, students explored their personal values and selected a theme they were interested in addressing. Themes included energy, environment, transportation, health, and inequality.

Once students had chosen a theme, the design sprint challenged them in three discrete ways.

  • First, students were challenged to define a local problem associated with their chosen theme.
  • Using design-thinking strategies, students then conducted research and generated a prototype of their proposed solution to the problem.
  • Finally, the task culminated with a pitch to a group of experts in the field.

You can learn more about this project in the video below, which I produced for National Geographic Educator Certification.

  1.      Google Earth Education

Check out Google Earth Education to find out how easy it is to incorporate this tool with your learning objectives.

Providing students with the opportunity to move beyond being passive recipients of knowledge is so important in lesson planning. Geospatial thinking has transformed our perceptions of the world around us, and affected how we address issues such as climate change and the protection of wildlife. Rather than simply teaching students about shoreline development or melting ice, Google Earth allows students to explore, measure and analyze it for themselves. 

I developed an inquiry-based scavenger hunt where students could explore locations and draw their own conclusions about key concepts. When designing this lesson, I chose to connect my students with the locations I visited last summer. My students have heard all about my expedition to the Arctic, and my hope was that this activity would deepen their connection to a place I care so much about, and inspire them to ask more questions.

Check out Ali’s Google Earth Pro lesson plan here!

  1.      InstaVR

Students explore the Canadian High Arctic through virtual reality. Photo by Ali Farlow-Troy

In partnership with my school’s Information Technology department, I created my first virtual reality lesson with InstaVR.

Fostering a spirit of exploration in my science classroom is important to me. Using Google Cardboard, students had the opportunity to explore the Canadian High Arctic while engaging with text, photographs, and videos at their own pace.

If this is something that interests you, I would highly recommend InstaVR. This technology is fast and easy to navigate, and it allowed me to bring my students a little closer to the Canadian Arctic.

What unites these four strategies? Through these learning experiences, students cannot respond passively and are encouraged to act with purpose. Breakout EDU promotes active learning, a design sprint encourages students to co-create and shape a driving question, Google Earth pushes students to take initiative, and InstaVR inspires independent thought.

Active learning processes help students develop agency, and I hope that by giving students a voice and choice in their own learning, they come to a deeper level of understanding because, to return to Jane Goodall’s quote, “Only if we understand can we care.”

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Claire Trainer (left) and Ali Farlow-Troy (right) explore Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada. Photo courtesy Ali Farlow-Troy

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

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