Strategy Share: Using Immersive Stimuli to Drive Student Inquiry

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Sarah Harris, a K-12 social studies curriculum specialist and middle school teacher, after her expedition to Antarctica. 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.

Sarah observes a gentoo penguin colony on Barrientos Island. Photo by Peg Keiner

As student inquiry becomes a primary focus of social studies and science instruction, educators across the nation are designing lessons that challenge learners to ask and answer their own questions. Asking effective questions is a critical and authentic skill, yet it can be challenging, especially for learners new to the inquiry process.

Choosing engaging stimuli is an essential first step to promoting the development of inquiry skills in students of all ages. While inquiry stimuli can take many different forms (poems, paintings, photographs, historical documents, symbolism—just to name a few), stimuli that immerse students in an experience and pique their natural curiosity can lead to some of the most engaging classroom conversations.

A seventh-grade student travels via Google Cardboard. Photo by Sarah Harris

At the beginning of each school year, I tell my seventh-grade students that we will spend the year “traveling the world.” Using Google Cardboard viewing devices, 360-degree photospheres bring virtual reality to our students’ fingertips and provide opportunities for us to expand the walls of our classrooms. With this technology, students can “travel” the world in a truly immersive way, and teachers can create opportunities for students to take their own “expeditions” within the confines of the classroom.

When I use Google Cardboard with students or adult learners, I am consistently impressed by how quickly and naturally the inquiry flows. The learners ask question after question without prompting, and harnessing that natural curiosity is a great way to help students learn how to ask effective questions about the world around them.

Getting Started

Google Cardboard viewing devices offer a simple, accessible way to bring virtual reality to the classroom. Available at a low cost (typically $5-$10), these easy-to-assemble virtual reality viewers enable students to immerse themselves in landscapes around the globe through exploration of 360-degree still and video footage.

The Google Street View app (available at no cost for most Android and Apple phones) offers the opportunity to transform a two-dimensional photo into an immersive 360-degree experience. Simply search for a location, select a photosphere, and use the Google Cardboard symbol in the top right corner to transform the image. While I wrote a local grant for the purchase of a class set of phones for this purpose, many middle and high school students have access to the technology needed to view photospheres on their own personal cell phones.

STEP 3: Place your phone in the Cardboard viewer for an immersive 360-degree view. Screenshot by Sarah Harris

Alternatively, students can explore 360-degree photospheres on a desktop computer or Chromebook by searching for a destination on Google Earth, dragging the yellow person icon (“Pegman”) from the right side of the screen, and dropping it over an area highlighted in blue on the satellite image to navigate in Street View mode.

Students can use a computer to move around a photosphere using the Street View feature on Google Earth. Screenshot by Sarah Harris

Inquiry Stations for Collaboration

Virtual reality technology can be implemented in multiple ways depending on the objectives of your lesson and the needs of your learners.

Inquiry station activities allow teachers to set up viewing devices to focus on pre-selected destinations for a planned tour with stops at particular destinations.

Using a simple organizer (see example), all students view the same 360-degree images and work collaboratively to ask questions and make observations at each station. Opportunities for collaboration support rich dialogue between students, and these conversations often lead to deeper inquiry.

Planning a Trip for Personalized Learning

Google Earth photospheres can also provide incredible opportunities for personalized learning. During a single class period, one student can walk the streets of a city or town in Europe while others are exploring the Amazon rain forest, observing a gentoo penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, or visiting a tortoise reserve in the Galápagos Islands. Students can plan their own trips around the world (see sample activity), and the opportunity for each learner to choose his or her own destinations can lead to powerful inquiry and greater student engagement.

Before I embarked on my expedition to Antarctica as a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, I asked my students to make predictions about what I might experience on this mysterious continent. Nearly every student predicted that it would be desolate and void of life. From the first moment we stepped onto the continent, it was very clear that their predictions were far from accurate.

As I traveled throughout the peninsula, I attempted to capture the magic of this strange and beautiful place. From the shrieks of 100,000 penguins on a volcanic island to the bursts of water that signaled a surfacing whale, to the eerie, otherworldly sounds of a resting Weddell seal: Antarctica was very much alive.

Upon my return, I was challenged to bring this experience home to learners across my school district. Using Google Cardboard and a compilation of my own photographs and photospheres, along with those taken by my Grosvenor Teacher Fellow colleagues and those available on Google Earth, I have been able to create engaging activities that have immersed learners across my district in the magic of the Antarctic peninsula in an almost tangible way. You can, too!

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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