#ThatsGeography: How I use VR in Cross-Curricular Teaching (It’s Easier Than You Think!)

This post was written by educator Katie Harnish.

Near the school where I teach, the kids live in a lot of high-density housing and have limited access to green space. My school sits on a big campus and I thought it was a real opportunity for students to go out and explore, take an explorer mindset, and make a guidebook to teach others about our campus. But as I was talking about the idea with a member of our tech team, she asked, “Why not use virtual reality (VR) to create the guidebook?” 

I am not particularly tech-savvy so I thought VR would be way too complicated. But she showed me the process and I was floored at how easy it was. If you have a cell phone and a computer, you’re able to create VR tours of your local spaces. Having a 360-degree camera is a great bonus, but some apps can take a 360-degree image for you. Teachers can also use existing 360-degree images online (such as Google Street View) to create VR, so even the camera is optional! And that’s all you need. 

So we took 360-degree images of different microhabitats around our school and uploaded them to Google Tour Creator. In each of these scenes, my students would embed images of different bird species they’d found or a tree that a deer had rubbed its antlers on, so when you look around the scene, you see that image, an explanation, and the significance. My students also did nature journaling as part of this process, so sometimes they would link a piece of their artwork into our tour. I love using VR and continue to use it because it’s so cross-curricular. The kids are writing — it’s infused into the VR experience — but they’re also using inquiry, collecting data, gathering observations, and infusing their art or photography into the project. 

It’s also so easy to share. Our virtual campus tour is an artifact of our learning that we can share with people across the globe and they can experience what it feels like to stand in our habitat. The kids love it too. They can manipulate the image and be selective about what they upload, which helps them place their learning within the scene. The VR tour is the final product but also can serve as a testament to the journey of their learning — they’re writing in their notebooks about their daily experiences, and so it becomes both the final product and the testament to the process. These different inputs allow multiple ways for students to showcase their strengths and interests.

I also think VR helps students learn about geography. For example, when we did the study of our campus we found a ton of water bottles on the ground. When we looked around at the space and considered human usage, we realized there were playing fields nearby. We walked a half-mile around the playing fields and found there were no trashcans — lots of people were coming to this space but there was nowhere to dispose of their water bottles. My students became solutions seekers and advocated our grounds committee. The administration then bought three or four trashcans. It’s not going to solve the littering problem — we need to get people to stop using single-use plastics — but now these bottles are not entering into our ecosystem. It’s a small start but also a lesson to the kids about impact and advocacy. How do we address a problem, examine it, and solve it? 

The community is also involved in our VR process; we rely on its expertise to inform our learning. I didn’t realize that there are so many experts who need to come into classrooms to earn volunteer hours or that people with such vast expertise often love to talk to kids. We met a local birding club member who was excited to talk to my students about a Kestrel box he had put on the campus and we took a camera to see the eggs. Right now with the pandemic, we can’t engage those experts unless we’re outside, so we’re relying on Seek by iNaturalist. If you have a cellphone to take an image, you can use it to pull up Seek in your backyard and identify what’s around you. 

Students look for plants and animals to include in their virtual tours. Photo by Katie Harnish.

Creating VR is a powerful teaching tool but just viewing it is an amazing experience for the kids as well, even without VR goggles. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I live, has been nicknamed America’s refugee capital. My class did a deep dive into what that means, and to help students gain understanding and empathy, we used VR to stand in a place where refugees might have had to flee and to see inside a refugee camp. It gives you all sorts of immersive experiences that build a real sense of what a place is like even though you aren’t there. You can look up and see the sky above and the ground beneath your feet. 

Moving forward, I’d love to connect our classroom to another classroom in the world to share these images back and forth. For example, a class from Pakistan could look at our school campus and we could look at theirs. You feel more attuned to issues around a space once you’ve experienced it. That’s part of travel and VR helps get you there if you can’t travel (such as because of COVID-19). 

If you’re at all interested in VR, be brave and take a chance. It sounds a little bit more complex and space-age than it is. It’s more approachable than people realize and it’s engaging for kids. If I can do it, you can do it. I’m not tech-savvy, but I am willing to explore. I’m also not a particularly social person, but I’ve learned that incredible experiences can come to the classroom when you network and meet the people in your community — it is full of resources and amazing experts. The more we educate ourselves through National Geographic courses, opening our minds and learning, the more we can see the intersectionality of geography and, well, everything. Keep learning, keep exploring, and keep being courageous.

Katie Harnish is a National Geographic Certified Educator. She’s taken the following National Geographic Education courses

  • 2019-2020 Educator-Explorer Exchange
  • Connecting the Geo-Inquiry Process to Your Teaching Practice
  • Integrating Service with Learning Goals
  • Teaching Global Climate Change in Your Classroom
  • Collecting Data to Explore Plastic Pollution in Our Communities
  • Mapping as a Visualization and Communication Tool in Your Classroom
  • Storytelling for Impact in Your Classroom: Photography

Feature image by Katie Harnish

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