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Content Area Literacy

Virtual Field Trips

Media-rich and interactive websites can play an essential role in science instruction. They can encourage students to think critically, by providing tools for modeling, visualization, and simulation tools; discussion and scaffolding; and data collection and analysis.

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The 3rd-grade students bounced up and down with excitement as they looked over the shoulders of ocean explorers using sonar technology to map the deep sea nearly 20,000 feet below the water’s surface near Indonesia. The students were on a virtual field trip called “Voyages of Discovery: NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer” on the website of the Exploratorium museum (opens in a new window).


Technology can play an essential role in science instruction through the use of virtual environments in four areas identified by the National Research Council (2002):

  • Learners think critically and logically about scientific ideas and compare them with real-life conditions.
  • Learners critically evaluate and communicate scientific ideas.
  • Learners formulate scientific explanations from evidence.
  • Learners use appropriate tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data. (p. 19)

Technologies associated with these learning dimensions include thinking critically with (1) modeling, visualization, and simulation tools (Gobert & Pallant, 2004; Keating, Barnett, Barab, & Hay, 2002; White & Frederiksen, 1998); (2) online interactive and discussion tools (Guzdial & Turns, 2000; Hsi & Hoadley, 1997; Lee & Songer, 2003; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994); (3) online scaffolding tools (Davis, 2003; Quintana et al., 2004); and (4) data collection, analysis, and interpretation (Penuel & Yarnal, 2005; Songer, 2006). Using these technology tools can help students experiment and think critically about phenomena they are experiencing first-hand in the real world by using controlled, hypothetical, or virtual environments (Songer, 2007).

Because they have an educational mission and are expected to provide authoritative information, museums and government agencies have created many excellent web-based virtual environments and science field trips for students K through 8 that are recommended by science educators (Bodzin & Cates, 2002; Smith, 1999; Stevenson, 2001). An advantage of these websites over print media is that they can be updated rapidly and can make new, complex, and controversial information readily available. They can also allow children to travel in virtual space, not just in our world but all over the universe.


Identify a website that offers a virtual science field trip for students, which can be used in concert with hands-on experiences in the classroom, lessons, and reading nonfiction science trade books on the chosen topic. The following is a list of recommended websites for science education.

  • Exploratorium (opens in a new window)

    The website of the children’s science museum in San Francisco offers an array of virtual exhibits that are interactive and include videos, podcasts, photo essays, articles, digital library resources, activities for students, science teaching information, blogs, and much more. The features range in grade-level appropriateness, from very young through secondary students, and many of the activities can be done by students independently. The site is also available in Spanish.

  • NASA (opens in a new window)

    The website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration focuses on earth and space sciences and offers teachers and students many virtual experiences around the Earth and through the universe, including space exploration. For teachers, there are downloadable teaching guides that a teacher can search by grade, science area, and type of activity. The NASA Kid’s Club also allows students to search by subject, leading them to many interactive activities.

  • USGS (opens in a new window)

    The website of the United States Geological Survey focuses on biology, geography, geology, geospatial, and water. It is constantly updated with FAQs on topics of current interest, with news releases, the latest publications, podcasts, and a multimedia gallery. The Science in Your Backyard section allows students to choose their state and get news releases and real-time information on current events in science. They offer teacher’s guides on many topics, student activities, and numerous maps and mapping activities for student participation.

  • Boston Museum of Science (opens in a new window)

    The website of the museum offers teaching resources and guides, and it takes students on virtual field trips related to the museum collection using video, video casts, and podcasts.

  • GLOBE (opens in a new window)

    The Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment is a worldwide, hands-on primary through secondary school-based science and education program on earth and space science. Students can participate in various research experiences through the program by doing inquiry-based investigations and data entry. This program has a close partnership with NASA and NSF Earth System Science Projects. The site is available in English and Spanish. It is necessary for teachers to join in order to participate.

Preview the sites and current exhibits or features for a virtual field trip with students that will complement classroom instruction and learning goals. Students can be prepared for the visit with an introduction to the site, guidelines on how the virtual field trip will take place, and the expectations for each student.

Before the virtual field trip, introduce the use of the Web with literature and assemble a text set of nonfiction science trade books on the topic for the field trip. These books could be read aloud and discussed using reader response questions and prompts for whole class participation, used in book clubs on a topic related to the virtual field trip, or read independently by students.

It is also possible to do a post-visit debriefing for student responses, questions, or ideas they might have for further inquiry and activities related to the virtual field trip.

Grade-level modifications

K–2nd Grade

Introduce the World Wide Web to young students by reading aloud the picture book Willie and the World Wide Web (Geissen, 1998). This book is a virtual reality fable and tells the story of Willie, who enters a computer on his birthday through a website titled “Wonders of Our World” and travels on through different site topics such as “Our Solar System” and “The Age of Dinosaurs.” While it is a well-illustrated picture story book for children, it also introduces many facts about the web through the narrative of Willie’s adventures.

After reading this book, lead a discussion using reader response questions and prompts:

  • If you were Willie, how would you have felt on a trip on the World Wide Web?
  • Was there anything you wondered about?
  • What would you like to find out on the World Wide Web?

After reading this book, lead a discussion using reader response questions and prompts: If you were Willie, how would you have felt on a trip on the World Wide Web? Was there anything you wondered about? What would you like to find out on the World Wide Web?

Recommended children’s books

3rd Grade–5th Grade

Introduce and read aloud a book on the Web and have a class set of books that can be read in book clubs or independently by students, as well as a class set of books on the topic related to the virtual field trip. Students can go on the virtual field trip as a class through the use of a Smart Board in the classroom, during time in the computer lab, or they can be rotated through a computer station during assigned times.

Prepare a set of guidelines for the virtual field trip, have students take notes, discuss the field trip with the class after everyone has participated, and then plan further activities.

Recommended children’s books

English language learners

English language learners benefit from the use of visuals and auditory sensory information such as photographs, illustrations, and video and audio recordings to provide comprehensible input for the website content. Interactive activities on such websites can engage them, and they can work in pairs or small groups with more proficient English speaking peers for student to student interaction. Many sites are available in Spanish as well to provide primary language support. Websites can be viewed multiple times so that English language learners have repeated opportunities to view, hear, and interact with the website content and activities.

Struggling students

Guide students through a website with the use of a Smart Board in the classroom or at an individual computer station with a few or a small group of students. Relevant vocabulary can be introduced with a word bank list of words, and titles of each section of the virtual field trip to find can be shown in order. Students can be guided to choose appropriate activities at a variety of ability levels.


Some sites have included forms of assessment and evaluation that can be used, assessments can be created based on the class’s science topic and learning goals, or students can write in response to questions that ask them to evaluate the website and the virtual field trip:

  • What did you think of the website and the virtual field trip?
  • Were there any questions you have about it?
  • What is the most interesting thing you learned on the virtual field trip?
  • What else would you like to know?
  • How could you find out?


November, A. (2008). Web literacy for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sage, K. (1999). Science activities using the World Wide Web: Grade 4–6+. Monterey, CA: Evan-Moor Educational Publishers.

Cox, C. (2012). Literature Based Teaching in the Content Areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
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