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Virtual field trips offer unique experiences

New York Teacher

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the end of the school year was a popular time for class trips. In New York, we have world-class museums, historic locations, hands-on exhibits and famous landmarks that complement nearly any lesson or subject. This year, you don't have to completely forgo those experiences; you and your students can embark on virtual field trips instead.

Though nothing can replicate an in-person visit, virtual field trips can offer unique experiences in their own right. On a visit to the Museum of Modern Art a few years ago, my students planned to get a close look at Van Gogh's Starry Night, but between swarms of tourists and looming security guards, it was impossible. However, when we watched MoMA's Virtual Views afterward, we examined the artwork in detail and read the curator's commentary. That virtual experience gave us a greater understanding of Van Gogh than our in-person visit did.

Growing up in New York City, I remember how much I loved class trips to the American Museum of Natural History. Its virtual tour allows you to "stand" right under the big blue whale, explore its famous exhibits and dioramas, examine dinosaur skeletons and wander through its many halls. Guided tours of the museum are also broadcast on Facebook Live.

When visiting Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty online, at least you don't have to wait in line for a ferry. Scholastic has a wonderful tour of Ellis Island along with teaching activities. The National Park Service offers a virtual tour of the Statue of Liberty with historical information and breathtaking views.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art began its 360 Projectduring the pandemic. It features panoramas of some of the Met's most visited spots, such as the Temple of Dendur and the Armor Gallery. For younger children, the Met's illustrated map lets you navigate exhibits in a Where's Waldo-like format.

The Hayden Planetarium streams tours of the universe with its Astronomy Online series on its YouTube channel; it broadcasts live on the first Friday of every month at 1 p.m. The Bronx Zoo hosts virtual exhibits daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with live webcams featuring animals such as penguins and lemurs. You can view the Space Shuttle Enterprise, the inside of the Concorde and more via the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum's tour.

Once in-person trips can take place again, these online versions can still be a useful part of your repertoire as a teacher. Viewing a virtual field trip ahead of a visit provides students with background information and prior knowledge. And afterward, virtual field trips are great for debriefing, reminding students of what they experienced and probing more deeply how an exhibit aligns with the content of your curriculum.

Some museums don't offer permanent online tours, but you can arrange a live, virtual visit with your class to such places as the Hall of Science, the New York Historical Society, the 9/11 Memorial or the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

And, if you're looking for virtual tours beyond New York City, you can check out Mount Rushmore, the Anne Frank House, the Louvre, the Great Wall of China or even Mars.

Sandy Scragg is an instructional technology specialist with more than 15 years of experience in New York City public schools.