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Virtual Field Trips

Pivoting Cross-Curricular Experiential Learning to an Online Platform

The Science Teacher—July/August 2021 (Volume 88, Issue 6)

By Heather McPherson, Gregory Frank, Rebecca Pearce, and Ernest Hoffman

Virtual Field Trips

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for high school teachers to deliver high-quality science programs. The challenge for teachers is providing rich, meaningful lessons for students in an online environment when students lack access to laboratory equipment and other manipulatives. As noted in the literature, secondary students become increasingly disengaged during online learning. The longer students remain in a distance learning environment, the more difficult it becomes to maintain student engagement (Schwartz et al. 2020). Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, author Gregory Frank developed in-person experiential learning field trips. On these trips, students visited science-and-technology-centered business sites. The question then became how to transform these field trips to meet the unique needs of teachers and students living through a pandemic. Heather McPherson and Rebecca Pearce, co-authors and inservice science teachers, worked with Gregory Frank and co-author Ernest Hoffman to incorporate the principles of Ambitious Science Teaching (AST) (Windschitl et al. 2012; Appendix 1) into virtual field trip experiences.

Gregory and Heather met in 2016 when Greg began developing his fledgling company with the goal of creating experiential science and technology field trips for high school students. Heather was a PhD student at the time focusing on inquiry-based learning, which aligned with Gregory’s vision of experiential learning. Ernest was brought onto the team when Gregory started broadcasting live virtual field trips in April 2020. Last, Heather recruited Rebecca, a full-time science teacher and PhD student, to be part of the team. Gregory was director and host for the field trip experiences and led the field trip design, storyboarding, experts scouting and onboarding, visual media production, preparation of cross-disciplinary teacher support material, sign-in materials, and interactions setup for participating classes. Ernest supported field trip design and storyboarding, advised on the preparation of experts’ and hosts’ presentation and audiovisual setups, and operated broadcasting for the experiences. Heather worked as the educational expert and consultant for the field trip design, and she was co-host for the MDA experience. Heather and Rebecca created the follow-up in-class activities.

In this article, we share a unique science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) online field trip structure developed for high school students. The ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade students who participated in the virtual field trips were from multiple high schools. This article focuses on two virtual trips that the authors developed. Using the Zoom platform, students participated in a synchronous field trip to a space engineering and satellite production company that subcontracts with NASA, and a 3D printing operation that produces personal protective equipment (PPE) for essential medical personnel during COVID-19.

The second field trip included synchronous visits with a design team at Google’s Stadia division and with NVIDIA, manufacturers of graphic processing units (GPUs) and leaders in the field of visual computing. On this trip, Greg provided teachers with a link to YouTube Live. The trip was broadcast via Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) and students were invited to interact with the hosts using Slido, a Q&A and polling platform for virtual meetings. Slido allowed Greg and Ernest to moderate incoming comments, and screen duplicate questions and inappropriate behaviors.

Developing a Virtual Field Trip

Greg and Ernest select virtual field trip sites based on their potential to integrate cross-curricular teaching moments including society, the environment, and the economy. The field trips highlight how materials, information, finance, human activity, energy, and natural resources interact and flow around the globe in a closed system (Appendixes 2 and 3; see Online Connections). Furthermore, the field trip sites demonstrate how businesses adapt their daily operations to meet unique challenges such as COVID-19.

Greg and Ernest reach out to companies via email and then follow up by phone to arrange the field trips. The authors explain how the company’s business connects with high school STEM curricula. Once a company decides to host an online field trip (many companies are genuinely interested in doing so), Greg and Ernest determine the field trip journey, video angles, and lighting needs. On the day of the field trip, the company experts arrive on the Zoom platform 15 minutes before the trip begins to identify and correct last-minute video and audio issues. Classroom teachers also work with Greg and Ernest to incorporate AST into the experience.

The Virtual Field Trip

Every virtual field trip is related to STEM curricula and includes cross-curricular connections from geography, history, and language arts. The trips follow the tenets of place-based education, where students engage and reflect on direct experiences to foster new skills and attitudes (Anderson 2017). Greg and Ernest developed a systems approach to the field trips, emphasizing relationships between industry, society, and the environment. Additionally, the field trips incorporate a multi-faceted approach to learning by making connections to broad areas of learning that could include citizenship, environmental awareness, consumer rights and responsibilities, personal and career planning, and entrepreneurship.

The experiences incorporate online polling features to maximize the interactive component of the virtual field trip, providing students with opportunities to interact with the animators. Generally, there are four to six presenters (on-site experts at each company, the classroom teacher, and the main host), which ensures that students can interact with a variety of professionals. The authors work with the host companies in advance to explain the field trip model, which is to prioritize showing over telling, movement over stasis, and speaking in ways that resonate with teenagers. These field trips follow the “Gemba Walks” model, which is an engineering and management approach that originated at Toyota. In a Gemba Walk, decision makers walk along the factory floor to improve their decision-making process. Together, Gregory and the host experts decide on appropriate content, presentation style, timing, flow, and opportunities to interact with the young audience. This process is conducted via Zoom two or more weeks in advance of the field trip date. The host companies’ experts understand that their job is not to control the experience but to engage students in a polyvocal conversation that focuses on establishing links between local and global needs, the curriculum, and the real world.

The virtual field trips begin as Greg, the main host, provides a context to frame the trip within a broader global context. Greg begins each field trip with real-time interactive maps that illustrate the movement of people and goods across the sea and through the air (Figures 1 and 2). By using a systems narrative, students learn how they are situated in a global network of goods and services. Greg questions the students, eliciting their ideas about how companies operate as links in the supply chain or nodes in a system. The role of the experts is to support students to develop a systems-level understanding of larger global activities and interactions. The host (Greg) and classroom teacher (Heather and/or Rebecca) then guide the experience to connect the STEM curriculum to this larger global system. In this way, the companies become pedagogical supports by providing a link between STEM and broader global systems.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Movement of people and goods across the sea.
Movement of people and goods across the sea.
Figure 2
Movement of people and goods through the air.
Movement of people and goods through the air.

For the second virtual field trip the organizers introduced Slido, which provided students access to a platform that they could access on their cell phones or tablets. This platform engaged students in answering multiple-choice questions and gave them a forum to ask questions as the field trip progressed. In Rebecca’s school, some problems arose with the use of Slido as a small number of students chose inappropriate usernames. Fortunately, Greg and Ernest had a team of moderators monitoring Slido in real-time, and they were able to remove inappropriate comments. The organizers now require that students log into Slido using their school email addresses to ensure that students can be identified by their teachers, while still ensuring that their interactions on the platform are anonymous.

Virtual Trip One: Handle With Care: Viruses and Satellites

Heather, Greg, and Ernest prepared 50 students for a virtual field trip to a 3D printing operation and to MacDonald, Dettwiler, and Associates Ltd (MDA), a global space and satellite company. The latter develops and delivers advanced surveillance and intelligence solutions, defense and maritime systems, radar geospatial imagery, space robotics, satellite antennas, and communication subsystems to international markets that are looking for innovative technologies for space and terrestrial applications (Figures 3–5). The 3D printing operation is run by researchers at the University of Montreal, and features equipment designed, built, and operated by researchers a few years older than the high school participants.

Figure 3
Space engineer explains performance testing on the Telstar 19 satellite in Palo Alto, California, prior to its launch.
Space engineer explains performance testing on the Telstar 19 satellite in Palo Alto, California, prior to its launch.
Figure 4
Figure 4 Space engineer explains how SpaceX’s rockets convert chemical fuel energy into kinetic energy to launch satellites into orbit.
Space engineer explains how SpaceX’s rockets convert chemical fuel energy into kinetic energy to launch satellites into orbit.
Figure 5
Space engineer in the company’s cleanroom showing the final assembly of the medical-grade visor.
Space engineer in the company’s cleanroom showing the final assembly of the medical-grade visor.

Heather and Greg met via Zoom to develop a lesson plan that was based on what MDA and the 3D printer company were prepared to discuss with students. The field trip focused on themes related to MDA:

  • The story of COVID-19, planes, boats, satellites: How does a pandemic travel?
  • Space engineer: Satellites and space
  • Connection of satellites to the science curriculum
  • MDA space engineer explanation about how he retooled his clean room to help fight COVID-19
  • How satellites work in orbit
  • A synthesis of how manufacturing, planes, boats, 3D printers, and satellites connect to a pandemic

Heather then developed the following discussion prompts to elicit students’ intuitive ideas about space and satellite manufacturing and design to connect the virtual field trip with STEM curricula:

  • In what part of the atmosphere are satellites launched? In which atmospheric layers do satellites fly? Do you think the International Space Station is located in the same layer of the atmosphere? Could satellites collide with the space station (press for deep understanding)?
  • Are satellites in “space”?
  • What are two properties of this atmospheric layer?
  • How many satellites do you think are currently in this layer?
  • When we say that satellites orbit the Earth, what do we mean by orbit?
  • How do the satellites stay in place? Why don’t they fall to the ground because of gravity?
  • What is the gravity force that a satellite would be subjected to (look it up on your device)?
  • What functions do satellites perform?
  • How do satellites send information to Earth? What are the advantages of these systems compared to land communications?
  • What types of waves are used by satellites? Explain how satellites use these types of electromagnetic radiation.
  • What are some activities that involve space exploration? Can you discuss five of these?
  • How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic impacts companies such as MDA?

During the field trip, some questions were used for scaffolding students’ understanding of the scientific concepts presented by the aerospace engineer and the 3D printing researcher. As students responded, the teacher and on-site experts used these responses to help students make connections between their ideas and accepted scientific concepts about space, gravity, and satellites. Students were encouraged to question the experts, providing an opportunity for co-construction and understanding of scientific and technological ideas.

Throughout the field trip, the aerospace engineer explained the importance of telecommunications and robotics in the space industry. Additionally, the engineer explained how the company retooled its clean rooms to enable face shield assembly using components printed at the 3D printing facility to help protect frontline health workers in the battle against COVID-19.

During the field trip experience, students were encouraged to assume the role of field researcher. They were positioned to approach MDA and the 3D printer as research sites. Students gathered information and data about the site to understand how the science and technology presented during the trip affected their daily lives.

At the end of the virtual field trip, Greg concluded:

We started the field trip by asking what satellites and 3D printers have to do with COVID-19. The answer is transportation and contamination. We saw how the virus spreads quickly with planes, and how medical supplies follow slowly with boats, which is why local 3D printers are critical. The entire transportation system relies on satellites. Satellites are created in cleanrooms to prevent contamination, which could destroy the satellite. Like satellites, doctors and nurses are critical to the global system, and they need PPE being produced by these companies to provide protection from COVID-19.

When the field trip was over, the teacher continued to engage students in the online classroom, eliciting students’ ideas about satellite and manufacturing technologies to scaffold their understanding. Students began a collaborative project that provided students with an opportunity to discuss technological innovations created by the satellite industry (Appendix 3; see Online Connections). First, students gathered information about satellites. The focus was on how the science and technology presented during the trip affected their lives, drawing on the unused question prompts from the field trip. Second, students developed a 2-D model of a parabolic reflector by working in collaborative online work groups of three that had been established when classes first went online. Students worked in Zoom breakout rooms using Jamboard, a Google Suite whiteboard platform that allows students to create diagrams, drop images, and add notes while collaborating in the Zoom breakout rooms. As students worked in their breakout rooms, the teacher moved in and out of the breakout rooms to answer questions and to maintain a presence, ensuring that students were actively engaged with the project. Students explained the parts of a parabola and used their models to suggest how modifying one component of the parabolic dish could influence how radio signals are received (for example, changes in the shape of the parabola). Heather had planned to evaluate the technological models, but because of insurmountable time constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, students were unable to submit their models, so this part of the project was not completed. In the upcoming school year, Heather plans to develop a project where students use the MDA website to learn how satellites provide geospatial information for civil, commercial, and defense applications.

Virtual Trip Two: Gaming the System: Graphics Processors and the Creative Process

On the Gaming the System field trip, Greg and Ernest examined how digital technologies impact the physical world (see Appendix 3; see Online Connections). The system story of this trip began with the cobalt mines of Africa and ended with the virtual world of video gaming (Figures 6 and 7). Participants visited a design team from Google’s Stadia division, who shared the process of creating a video game from scratch. During the second segment of the online trip, students visited with NVIDIA, the inventors of graphic processing units and leaders in the field of visual computing. The NVIDIA engineer showed us how graphics engines support gaming and real-world applications that require processing of visual data.

Figure 6
Google Stadia producer demonstrated how video game characters, environments, and game mechanics are coded and created.
Google Stadia producer demonstrated how video game characters, environments, and game mechanics are coded and created.
Figure 7
The team leader at NVIDIA, the world’s 5th largest supercomputer, shows how graphics cards are used in cars.
The team leader at NVIDIA, the world’s 5th largest supercomputer, shows how graphics cards are used in cars.

The second virtual field trip ended as Greg summarized the field trip experience: “We saw the creative development process for video games on the software side, and then we explored how the GPUs are designed, built, and tested on the hardware side. This relationship between the hardware and software creates the video game experiences that so many people enjoy. Also, we saw how the materials for the hardware are coming from all over the world, and how gamers are sharing the experience in real time around the globe. This huge global network of miners, engineers, designers, transporters, programmers and thousands of others ARE the system of video game production, which you get to enjoy with your friends across town and around the world every day.”

At the time of this field trip, students were doing distance learning every second day. When the field trip was over, Heather and Rebecca continued to engage students in the online classroom. Heather elicited tenth-grade students’ ideas about environmental sustainability by assigning a collaborative project that focused on material science and the implications of how generating high-tech materials can have negative consequences on human populations and the environment. This assignment drew on the United Nations’ mandate to promote sustainable development, including sustainable lifestyles, human rights, global citizenship, and an individuals’ potential to mitigate unsustainable development (UNESCO 2018). For their assignment, students were asked to gather information about one material used in the manufacture of cell phones (see Appendix 4; see Online Connections). The focus was on how material science and the associated technologies presented during the virtual field trip affect their lives. The students created a virtual poster, working in heterogeneous collaborative online groups in Zoom breakout rooms (groups of three that were established one month prior). Each group developed their posters online, working in breakout rooms using Google Slides. Heather circulated through the breakout rooms as the students worked on their posters. In the following class, students presented their posters online, using Zoom breakout rooms to share their posters with students outside of their working groups during a virtual gallery walk (see Appendix 5 for examples of student work; see Online Connections).

Rebecca asked her ninth-grade students to work in groups to complete a table (Appendix 6) that required them to research three materials involved in the manufacture of GPUs. The questions in this short, formative activity connected the concepts in a physical science unit, including elements and compounds, physical and mechanical properties, and the use of materials in engineering to the field trip. While this activity was completed in-class, it could have been executed in an online format, with students working in breakout rooms. Once students had filled in the table, Rebecca facilitated a whole-class discussion to examine student responses and to probe student thinking (“Which properties are characteristic? Non-characteristic?” “How do the properties of the materials relate to their use in GPUs?”).


As a follow-up to both field trips, Greg invited participating teachers and students to submit feedback via Google Forms about the experience. The feedback from participating teachers was very positive: “I loved it. It was informative, and it was great how they linked satellites to COVID-19,” and “We spoke about it in class and they [students] had nothing but good things to say.” Student feedback was detailed and equally positive: “We had the chance to ask questions and have them answered on the spot, it was very interactive and appreciated. The Q&A portion of the field trip was useful and showed that we were not just students sitting behind a screen; we were truly on a field trip.” “I found all the machinery used to assemble, design, and test the satellites really cool.” “I enjoyed it when the engineer explained the role of the various components and their materials.” “I liked how we saw what happens to inactive satellites.” “Learning about the 3D printing software was really interesting to me.”

Questionnaire responses from the gaming field trip included: “I was surprised to learn that 1.5 billion phones are produced a year and there’s about 2.5 billion gamers in the world.” “I was surprised about the amount of math and physics that goes into coding.” “I didn’t know that most of the parts from our electronics came from mines in Africa (aluminum, silicon).” “I would’ve liked to see more about the process of games being made. We already saw a lot, but I was hooked!”

Heather and Rebecca both noted that the virtual component of the experience was easier to control and less work than an actual field trip. Looking forward, we can envision incorporating virtual field trips into our high school curricula on a regular basis, since traditional field trips are often not feasible due to money and time constraints.

To conclude, these virtual field trips made use of readily-available technological learning environments, including Zoom, Slido, Google Slides and Jamboard, to create high-quality, engaging online learning experiences. The responses from teachers and students were positive—they found the online field trips rewarding and stimulating. ■

Online Connections

Appendix 1:

Appendix 2:

Appendix 3:

Appendix 4:

Appendix 5:

Appendix 6:

Heather McPherson, PhD ( is a public high school science teacher and course lecturer at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Gregory Frank is the lead field trip designer and founder at E2 Adventures in Montreal, Canada. Rebecca Pearce is a private high school science teacher and PhD candidate at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Ernest Hoffman is a storyboarding, journalism and broadcasting specialist and board member at E2 Adventures in Montreal, Canada.


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Engineering Interdisciplinary STEM Teaching Strategies Technology High School

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