Charting Your Journey to Distance Learning
by Laurie Sullivan • Project Discover Teacher, Barrett Elementary School • Arlington, Virginia
with Shirley Ann Smith • Project Director of Curriculum, and Star Schools Project Director at the Satellite Education Resource Consortium
MultiMedia Schools • October 2001
Distance-education technology can provide an enormous boost toward the goal of offering quality learning opportunities. Electronic field trips enable teachers to broaden the horizons within their classrooms. However, making the journey from a traditional classroom to one that effectively integrates these opportunities can be difficult to imagine. Old World explorers returned with logs and maps that helped others embark to new worlds; we at the Satellite Education Resource Consortium (SERC) want to share our story of how one teacher in one school discovered her first electronic field trip—"Journeys to Wilderness Canyons"—and established a team of colleagues to conduct a project that succeeded in fascinating 4th graders while attracting national attention.

SERC is a nonprofit consortium that combines the assets of state and local departments of education with public broadcasting to design, produce, and deliver educational resources. Virtual excursions offered previously by SERC include the award-winning "Journeys to Alaska" (1999) and "The Power of Volcanoes" (2000). Students in 45 states and 15 countries around the world participated in the Volcanoes excursion.

The real reward for us comes in seeing how schools take these opportunities and craft programs that meet their local needs. We have all learned from what happened at Barrett Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, and we hope our story will help you chart your journey into distance learning.

The Barrett Experience with "Journeys," Step by Step
At Barrett Elementary, I—co-author Laurie Sullivan—work as a Project Discovery teacher, so when I "discovered" Journeys I used the team approach to bring it to our school. Project Discovery is a "hands-on/minds-on" activity-centered learning program to promote an in-depth understanding of mathematics and science through the use of technology and expository writing. When I received an oversized postcard promoting Journeys, I had never used a virtual field trip. The postcard intrigued me; it provided basic information and a URL. I immediately logged on, got a password, and started planning.

The postcard included the following copy:

An electronic field trip designed for middle school students.

Available live and archived via Web cast, satellite, and videocassette.

Come take a trip with us . . . a virtual trip . . . and experience an exciting new use of technology as we explore Journeys to Wilderness Canyons. Join middle school students from around the globe as we take this virtual field trip via satellite downlink and simulcast on the Internet to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park (Colorado) and other canyons throughout the world.

"Journeys to Wilderness Canyons" is a four-part learning experience designed to meet national science standards. Through inquiring and problem-solving activities, students follow a journey through time to discover how these canyons have become such a powerful illustration of natural forces and human impact. The series addresses the following questions: What is a wilderness canyon? How have forces of nature shaped wilderness canyons? What plants and animals live at Black Canyon? What are the human influences on wilderness canyons?

"We Loved It!" — Student Comments on "Journeys to Wilderness Canyons"

On the computer, my partner and I looked at cool places that have canyons. It was awesome.

The whole entire United States could fit in the canyon we saw on Mars.

I really liked drawing things we saw, a big horned sheep in the Black Canyon in Colorado and an old building in the canyon in Petra, Jordan.

We met Ranger Mike Johnson, a park ranger in the Black Canyon. A park ranger has to know all about the canyon and the animals and plants that live there.

Our field trip to the Black Canyon was an adventure, and I learned that I would like to be a wildlife ranger one day. I also liked pretending to be a bird in the beak activity and working like a real scientist with the owl pellet.

"Journeys" is an ideal program to enhance our teaching of the 4th grade Virginia Standards of Learning. The 4th grade team taught earth science in October and November. Viewing the broadcasts in March and April allowed us to spiral back and review with our students the content they had previously learned. It also provided the opportunity to introduce the students to new material they would encounter during the plants and animal unit in May and June. What follows is a snapshot of our implementation of an electronic field trip to Wilderness Canyons.

"Journeys," an Electronic Field Trip
"Journeys to Wilderness Canyons" examines how rivers, other natural phenomena, and human activity affect landscapes and plant and animal habitats. Through the four-part series, more than a million middle school students in the U.S. and other countries explored the unique ecosystem in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado; they compared the canyon's environment with Petra, Jordan; Valles Marineris, Mars; and Three Gorges, China. The electronic field trips aired each Wednesday in March 2001 and were delivered free to schools with satellite capability and/or Internet access. Students and teachers accessed the interactive/exploratory Web site for series support materials.

Each Journey Begins with a Purpose
I was motivated to use the program because it tied so clearly to the 4th grade science curriculum outlined in the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL). "Journeys"' target audience was middle school, so I knew that there would have to be some modifications, some extra effort to make it work for the 4th graders. Another challenge was that approximately 80 percent of Barrett students speak a language other than English as their first language. Video is a great way to teach all students, but the Wilderness Canyons video really impressed us as we watched it draw in the students who are at varying stages of learning to speak English. In fact, the high level of vocabulary challenged the native English speakers, and we worked with the HILT (high intensity language training) teachers and special ed teachers to solve the problems.

My first partner was Cynthia Long, Barrett Elementary's lead science teacher. Our combined enthusiasm quickly brought the other 4th grade teachers on board. We presented the idea to Elizabeth Burgos, Spencer Reisinger, and Amy Sack, and they agreed to work with us as a team. We also had continuous support from the instructional technology coordinator, library, reading, speech, and media staff.

Preparations and Planning
The first step was to ask the library media specialist to tape the broadcasts. After the first show aired, Cynthia and I previewed the tape after school. In the first video, students were introduced to several canyons and the people who study the canyons. We were a little worried about the high level of vocabulary but the content was excellent. We made a video recording sheet to help the students process the information. (See "Video Recording Sheet" on page 16.)

Each of the four 4th grade classes watched the first two videos as individual classes. The teachers introduced key vocabulary. They paused the tape often to allow the students time to take notes or draw pictures to help them make meaning of the content. Students' brains were primed by asking them to make predictions and then checking the predictions as the video progressed. When the first video showed the park rangers using latitude and longitude to find places in the canyon, the students made connections to their study of geography earlier in the year. Many students were interested in learning more about Dr. Leigh-Ann Bedal, the archaeologist featured in the video in the canyon of Petra, Jordan. We sent several e-mails to Dr. Bedal, and she answered each one of them. She wrote to us about her experiences in elementary school and how she became an archaeologist.

During March and April, we took electronic field trips to all the canyons in the program. Our students learned about the forces of nature that form canyons. They saw examples of the interdependence of plants and animals living in the Black Canyon of Colorado and studied the adaptations that plants and animals have had to make to live in the canyon.

Testing Instructional Media

Many teachers who use or would like to use electronic field trips are concerned about what they should be looking for in program content and design and supplemental materials, such as a teacher's guide. The following guidelines are based on the Barrett Elementary teachers' experience:

  • For planning purposes, it is very helpful to have a teacher's guide that includes an outline of each video and sample questions to ask the students. An outline/script makes it easy to know when to pause a tape for discussion and to design video note-taking (focus aide) sheets.

  • It is also important to have clear statements of the key objectives. The objectives should be realistic for the target grade level(s), and the program design should be flexible enough to accommodate differences in students' skill/knowledge levels.

  • Direct relationships between objectives and the program/project content and suggested activities should be immediately and clearly evident. Standards should be addressed specifically, and there should be several assessment techniques that can be used without additional resources. References for additional study are important also.

  • For some topics, definitions of words and brief explanations of concepts that are unique to the field or industry presented are helpful. A pre-program discussion of those words/concepts can make a tremendous difference in students' ability to stay focused. Opportunities for periodic feedback during a program or electronic field trip are crucial to detect problems with understanding and "keeping up" with content. Students also enjoy being able to express their opinions regarding what is most interesting at intervals rather than having to wait until the end of a program.

  • Content should be presented in clear, concise language that creates concrete images in the students' minds. The program should challenge comprehension and analytical skills and actively engage students. Accompanying activities should be exciting enough to spark creativity, not tiring and tedious.

  • The conclusion should review key points and encourage students to pursue additional information on particular elements/aspects of the topic presented.
The One Planet Education Web site provides a wealth of lesson plan ideas to support each video. We knew we had a winner when we read the lesson plan for Candy Bar Geology. Students viewed the second videotape with the aid of another video recording sheet. They saw how forces of nature form canyons and heard about the processes that formed the rocks and minerals of the Black Canyon in Colorado. After the program the students studied rocks in the Discovery Lab. Some rocks were real, like the moon rock we borrowed from the Goddard Space Flight Center. Other "rocks" weren't really rocks at all, but were actually different candy bars. The students discussed the importance of detailed field notes as they tried to select the "rock" a student had described. The Candy Bar Geology activity was popular not only with the students, but with the teachers as well. (As it turned out, we had bought too many different candy bars and had to eat the leftovers for weeks!)

"Journeys" Star Travels to Barrett Elementary
We were very excited when we heard that the ranger featured in the videos, Mike Johnson, would be visiting our school. The 4th grade team brainstormed how to involve all four classes in viewing the video on plant and animal adaptations in the Black Canyon. We decided we would watch the video in the library/media center and project it on a large screen. Afterward, the students would rotate through centers that correlated to what they had learned. The video showed a scrub jay eating pinyon nuts. The ranger had the students use different tools to represent different beaks to demonstrate how the jay is adapted to eating the nuts. My partner Cynthia Long pulled a lesson from her files that was similar to the activity in the video. We decided we would set up the Bird Beak activity in the Discovery Lab. Cynthia would teach this lesson to each class as they rotated through the center. We thought the students would like exploring the different canyons, plants, and animals on the Internet. Since our district does not allow elementary students to do searches on the Internet, we made a Web page with links and an Internet activity log for them to follow [].

Teachers Amy Sack and Spencer Reisinger led this center. For our final center we needed some assistance to pull off our idea. In the video, the ranger looks at droppings to find out what an animal has eaten. We thought it would be a good idea to let the students pick through owl pellets to discover an owl's prey. This was not an activity we had ever done before. We called our district science specialist, Connie Skeleton, for help. She said she would help us plan the activity and try to round up owl pellets in a timely manner, since we needed them for the following week. We ended up gathering fresh owl pellets from Potomac Overlook Park! Teacher Elizabeth Burgos organized and team-taught this center with Connie.

For one of the broadcasts, Barrett was selected to host visitors from the U.S. Department of Education, the Office of the Interior, and the Executive Office of the President. SERC provided "Journeys to Wilderness Canyons" T-shirts for the students and teachers for the big day. The students enjoyed watching the video as a large group. The center rotations were a success due to team work and thoughtful planning. Another ingredient to the success of the afternoon was involvement of non-homeroom teachers. So that each child would experience success during the center rotations, the reading teacher, special education teacher, speech teacher, and HILT teacher each stayed with one class of students for the entire afternoon. Teachers at Barrett support each other to create positive learning experiences for all children.

Barrett Elementary's electronic field trips experience was included in a national TV program that aired in June 2001. For more information, visit the Barrett Web site at

A Journey Worth Taking
We attribute much of the electronic field trip's success to team effort. Working together, the teachers set up "centers" for the students to rotate through as they participated in the activities to accompany the broadcasts. Since "Journeys" was so successful, we immediately set out on another electronic field trip, a Bureau of Land Management dig for a dinosaur. Interacting with scientists, park rangers, and archaeologists is as exciting for me as it is for the students. I have learned right along with them and enjoyed seeing our science lessons practiced by professionals in their everyday lives in the real world.

There were many benefits to using the "Journeys" electronic field trip. Our students were exposed to distant lands and cultures they may never be able to visit in person. They were able to see the connections to what they are learning in school and how it relates to the real world. The program fostered a community of learners, for students as well as teachers. The students were excited about learning!

We are planning on using "Journeys to Wilderness Canyons" next year.

Co-author Laurie Sullivan, Project Discovery teacher at Barrett Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, may be reached at Co-author Shirley Ann Smith, project director of curriculum and Star Schools project director for SERC, can be contacted at

Video Recording Sheet Sample

Name _________________________

Journeys to Wilderness Canyons

What Types of Plants and Animals Live around Black Canyon?

We'll start our trip on the highest point of the _______________ of Black Canyon.

Definition of Adaptation:

The jay bird has a _______________ adapted to getting pinyon nuts out of cones.

Prediction: What animal chewed off part of the pine tree?

The digestive system of the ___________________________ has adapted so that it can break down wood.

Discuss: How can you tell what an animal eats?

What animal ate the mule deer?

The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep have adaptations that allow them to live successfully in the vertical Inner Canyon Life Zone.

The rangers are tracking the Bighorn Sheep. What tool did we see Ranger Mike Johnson use last time to help him locate his position?

What are the problems with the prairie dog population. What does eradicate mean?

Draw to show your understanding:

The Kokanee Salmon was introduced to the river by humans. They have never completely adapted to their new habitat.

The Kokanee Salmon rely on people for their survival.

What animal did you think was most interesting in the video? Why?

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