Virtual reality technology is allowing classrooms around the country to participate in field trips to exotic locales across the world.
The technology offers an interactive experience to students, allowing them to hold conversations with field experts and virtually tour a number of different locations, all from their own classroom.
While virtual reality headsets have been used in the gaming industry since the mid-1980's, they are beginning to find their way into the educational field.
"With virtual reality becoming more widespread, it won't be long before it makes it to the classroom," said Seth Anderson from Duke's Center for Instructional Technology.
Funding from the Duke Digital Initiative allowed Duke chemistry professor Amanda Hargrove and postdoc Gary Kapral to create a program that allows participants to become the size of a molecule and explore proteins and nucleic acid in 3-D for their chemistry courses.
"We call this demo the âMolecular Jungle Gym,'" Kapral said. "You can actually go inside, say, a strand of RNA, and stand in the middle and look around."
Kapral said that students who make use of virtual reality technology have better retention and understanding of topics than students who simply view topics on a computer screen.
"The Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) facility has been doing this for a long time, but you have to physically go there," said Elizabeth Evans of the Duke Digital Initiative. "What makes virtual reality headsets like these different is they make virtual reality not only portable but also affordable."
While not everyone is excited about the new technology, with some calling it just another extension of escapism, much like TV, educational advocates maintain that it can be used to see, hear and interact with things that students would not otherwise have the chance to.
Students at Unqua Elementary School in Massapequa, New York are using videoconferencing technology to gain similar experiences. The school holds 25 such videoconferences each year, with 250 conducted district-wide. Librarians create the experiences and work with classroom teachers to bring curriculum-rich, cultural and educational experiences to students.
"The students enjoy them very much," librarian Melinda Alford said. "They are a great way to learn information interactively with a very knowledgeable presenter."
The district also makes use of the technology to connect with other area schools and allow students to converse with one another about a variety of topics, including the effects of Superstorm Sandy.
The Nutrients for Life Foundation is currently busy preparing to host a live virtual field trip for students across the country. Middle school students will delve into the STEM topics by gaining a real-world perspective of the harvest and planting seasons.
In addition, maps.com recently announced the release of their Early Learner collection of virtual field trips, which will offer users the ability to click on a section of a map to read more about it or to see detailed images. There are a total of 18 such field trips available for classroom use.