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Virtual Learning in State Parks: Tide Pools and Technology

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California State Park interpretive ranger Francesca Henderson uses the PORTS virtual field trip equipment to bring Crystal Cove State Park into a classroom.  The portable technology has been used 1,500 times with more than 46,000 students. 


[I've been on the road visiting interesting teachers and classrooms, and they will be part of 'On California' this spring.  As I traveled, the folks at the California State Parks asked to tell the story of a teaching innovation they developed.  /ctk]

By Brad Krey

Through online classes, anyone can learn about almost any subject at any level of study any time they want.  But as we all know, there's no substitute for real, personal interaction. Not just with teachers, but also with that great big classroom we call the natural world. I'm talking about field trips.   Remember going on field trips?  For those science and history nerds among us, they were great ways to see and experience things we'd only read about in textbooks.  For the rest of us, it was just a fun time outside the classroom.

Unfortunately, kids don't get to go on field trips as much as they used to, especially among lower-income schools here in California.  To provide these kids with the next best thing, over a decade ago California State Parks established a distance learning program called PORTS (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Schools).  Using video conferencing technology and high speed data connections, PORTS enables park rangers to interact with kids in real time, taking them on virtual field trips in 10 California State Parks.  Units of study include topics such as Kelp Forests, Redwood Ecology, Monarch Butterfly Migration, and historical subjects like the Gold Rush.

In the last school year, PORTS delivered close to 1,500 presentations to more than 46,000 students in 100 school districts across California.  Of the 202 individual schools who participated in PORTS, 133 were Title 1 or low-income schools.  The program has been a great success, with 74% of participants giving PORTS the highest grade for Overall Program Experience.

PORTS is constantly looking to find ways to employ technology to enhance the learning experience and to provide a meaningful and engaging experience for students.  This year we partnered with Belkin to help us with hardware and software solutions that make real-time communication easier and more fun.

Through this program, utility vehicles functioning as mobile studios are equipped with the Belkin Tablet Stage an adjustable platform that turns any tablet into an interactive presentation tool. This allows park rangers the opportunity to use the iPad as a document camera and video presentation system to better showcase the parks' natural, cultural and historical resources that are part of the PORTS program.

The Tablet Stage has replaced a bulky and cumbersome laptop-based system. It's much easier for our park rangers to carry and move around.  (Our kelp forest presentations are done from a kayak.)  In addition the video quality is better.  The accompanying Stage App lets rangers annotate over live video and draw on the screen, enabling a truly interactive learning experience.

On the classroom side, using the Tablet Stage eliminates the need for schools to have a dedicated and expensive video conferencing system.  Instead, all they need is an iPad or other tablet device.  Utilizing the Tablet Stage in the classroom, teachers can customize the view for their students so that the park interpreters can see the entire classroom and speak directly with students. This allows students the opportunity to ask questions, engage in conversations, and annotate their experience with park staff in real-time, without leaving the classroom.  

Earlier this year, Castlebay Lane Charter Elementary School from Porter Ranch, California, demonstrated this experience in a kindergarten classroom by "traveling to" Crystal Cove State Park in Laguna Beach.

"With this program, our students have become more focused and engaged. We've also noticed a decline in behavioral issues. While we are still reminiscent of field trips to see tide pools, virtual field trips offer students unique opportunities to experience things they otherwise may not have and interact with an expert (the park ranger) who is there to help them learn," said Christine Chun, Assistant Vice Principal of Castlebay.

"It has also aided the teachers in embracing the enormous role technology plays in students' lives unlike when they were kids; they are continually thinking of ways to effectively implement the use of technology and blended learning in the classroom."    

As the backbone of its system, PORTS employs a cloud-based video conferencing solution from Vidyo managed by California's K-12 High Speed Network to deliver an experience that feels as immersive as possible.  This year, PORTS brought students into the kelp forest via a ranger using a submerged GoPro camera while video conferencing from a kayak.  PORTS will continue to use cutting edge technologies to give the children of California a learning experience they likely will not get any other way as a part of their K-12 experience.

Brad Krey is Program Manager of the California State Parks PORTS Program

[If you are interested in using this program for your school, please respond in the Comment box below this column and I will see that you are put in touch with folks who can help.]

Photo: Belkin

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