An giant reptilian eye stared, unblinking, at a room full of elementary students on a recent Monday.
It belonged to a juvenile alligator, in the hands of an expert on the creatures at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, 972 miles from the Cedar View Elementary media center.
Several classes converged to learn about the reptiles through a live, up-close encounter. They learned about alligators’ invisible eyelids, which help them see underwater, and how mother alligators carry their young in their mouths for protection.
An employee of the aquarium showed students an alligator skull, and held up a live baby to point out its features, like its camouflage stripes. Laughter erupted when the alligator, still and toy-like in her hands, began wiggling side-to-side across the screen to break free.
Fourth-grade students in Amy Constant’s class have traveled the United States and the world this year through the video chat program Skype, to enhance their learning beyond the walls of the classroom.
Virtual field trips have takenthem across the Atlantic Ocean to chat with British explorer Justin Miles about his Arctic expeditions; across the language barrier to Hungary for a singing lesson; and to a Michigan fourth-grade classroom in Harbor Springs.
“We always think that we don’t have an accent, and we’re like, ‘They sound so different,'” fourth-grader Isaac Fraam observed. “But once you think about it, they think we sound the same.”
“Something that surprised me is that other classes around the U.S. might think the same that we think, but also think really different,” Claire Blanton added.
Tech Transcends Distance
Constant learned about the Skype-call lessons from a technology conference in Grand Rapids last summer put on by the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL). Through the Skype in the Classroom program and Facebook groups that connect classrooms for chat times, she introduced a once-a-week Skype lesson to her class, beginning in the fall.
Some lessons are mystery calls with other classes around the country, which allow students in both classes to ask questions to figure out where they could be. Students record the location they visited, whom they spoke with, and their distance away.
The weekly lessons reach across the curriculum, Constant said. Students record the geographical distance of the Skype call, learning about subjects that touch social studies, math and science. Language arts is incorporated through written reflections.
The value of virtual travel, Constant said, is to show students “how people are creating and doing and becoming engineers and in all different fields with very limited resources, and how we can use resources like technology to travel around the world without buying a plane ticket.”
For many students, she said, travel isn’t always an option, but students on Skype benefit from learning to communicate across cultures.
“That’s really how our 21st century is now, the society they’ll be going into. They can travel with a click, so how can they use that to their power of education, instead of wasting it?”
Constant is hoping to bring other teachers on board with the lessons, she said. Even the occasional technology issues that impede some lessons can teach students flexibility.
“You go with the flow,” she said. “It’s a learning experience. You try again. You reconnect.”