By Jeff Gallatin
More than 1,500 students in Bay Village and North Olmsted are getting away on winter trips this month to a wide range of exotic locales around the world.
Google’s Expeditions Pioneer Program provided virtual-reality trips for students ages seven and up at St. Raphael School in Bay Village Monday, with their peers at North Olmsted Middle School getting set to take their trips this Friday. In addition, students at Bay Middle School are scheduled to take part in the program Jan. 26.
In the program, which is free, Google provides a tablet for teachers to access information on the different locations and cardboard viewers and smartphones which the students can move around 360 degrees to see what’s around them as well as see 3-D images and video, and hear ambient sounds at the different locations.
“Students now are getting to experience totally different programs and educational opportunities than were available even just a few years ago,” Ann Miller, St. Raphael’s principal said about the Expeditions program.
School program participants can select from more than 100 sites to take their students to. Some of the locations include the Great Wall in China, Mt. Everest, the Grand Canyon, Bikini Atoll, Gettysburg, Iceland, the Great Barrier Reef, Mayan ruins, Egyptian pyramids, the Congo, the moon and others. Google worked with organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, PBS, the American Museum of Natural History, the Planetary Society and the Palace of Versailles to develop the program and its curriculum for students.
“It has a great range of places to select from and let the students experience,” said Debbie Holecko, the eighth grade social studies teacher, who found the programs for the North Olmsted district last year while on a real trip in the southern United States.
“I’m always looking for good programs that can help our students get a good learning experience, and when I heard about this and checked it out, I thought, ‘We’ve got to get this one for the students’ as soon as we can,” she said.
Holecko and district officials applied for the program in the fall.
“We were notified before the end of the year that we were one of first schools in northern Ohio to get the program,” she said. “So, we’ve had to get ready to set it up and take part in it.”
Holecko and other school staff members can select the location to go to, then jump there via the smartphones and viewers, and enjoy the different locations.
“Having the 3-D experience with the ability to move around and see the movement and hear what’s going on at that location gives them a much better understanding of the subject,” she said.
North Olmsted Middle School Principal Tom Dreiling said the school is setting up special class times so students can experience the program.
“We’ve modified our schedule for the day to have everybody on half-hour periods, which is shorter than our normal periods, so we can give students the best opportunity to experience this,” he said. “We’re all pretty excited about the chance to use this.”
Amy Allen, who got the program for St. Raphael, said its staff also was pleased to be able to take part.
“It’s great hearing the excitement in the students’ voices and so many reactions when they go to the different locations,” she said, “or even a jump when they see or hear something unexpected or fun.”
Miller said she’d like to get the program back in some fashion.
‘This is something where I’d love to be able to get a regular program like this for the school and use it as a regular part of the educational curriculum.”
Clint Keener, superintendent for the Bay Village City School District, was present as well.
“I just came over to see what it’s like before it comes to the middle school,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun and we’re looking forward to it.”
St. Raphael students who took part were enthusiastic about the experience.
“It gives you a really different experience than anything else we’ve had,” said eighth-grader Anthony Gerace, who said his favorite location was the Great Barrier Reef and seeing the sharks in it. “It’s pretty realistic because we can move around different areas and hear what’s going on at the same time.”
Gerace’s friend, Rory Zawadzki, who was seated next to him, said a big part of the experience, was being able to share it.
“We get to ask questions right away and we’ll be able to talk about what we experienced,” he said.
Another student, fifth-grader, Ellie Yankow, said she loved seeing gorillas in the Congo.
“We just studied about a gorilla named Ivan who was captured and studied,” she said. “It made it fun knowing some of that, then seeing him and other people and places so closely.”
Yankow and her friends talked about the different places, with Yankow also running over to show Miller what was on her phone at one point.
“That’s the type of interaction that’s great,” Miller said. “Sharing this with the students.”