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Google Expeditions takes Highland Park Middle School students to moon and back

Highland Park among first stops for new virtual reality program

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Highland Park student Kira Shelton enjoys the Google Experience.Highland Park Middle School seventh-grader Brien Smith put a pair of goggles up to his face and moved his gaze all around as images of a rover traversing the moon filled his vision, almost as if he’d just stepped off a space ship.

“It’s like as if it’s right in front of you,” he said excitedly. “Sometimes I feel like I can touch it.”

At a nearby table, classmate Leah Harrison peered into her goggles and felt like she was standing on the precipice of an erupting volcano.

“You don’t get to be close to a volcano (erupting) in real life,” she said.

Last week, the Highland students were among the first in the country to experience the new Google Expeditions, the tech giant’s virtual-reality exploration platform now in a trial stage at select schools. Nearby students at Fir Grove Elementary and students at Oregon Episcopal School in Raleigh Hills also got a chance to take the virtual expeditions last week.

“Google’s bringing it out to a handful of schools and seeing where it goes from here,” said Wayne Grimm, the school’s library instructional technology teacher.

In an era when most Beaverton School District students are able to take a single field trip per year, Google Expeditions allows them to “go” places they may never see in a lifetime.

“It feels like going somewhere. It’s a more immersive experience,” said Grimm, who helped organize the sessions for seventh- and eighth-graders during their science classes. Highland sixth-graders will also have a shot at it soon.TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Highland Park Middle School librarian Wayne Grimm checks out the Google Expedition virtual reality goggles called Google Cardboard.

Google sent a representative to Highland Park to deliver equipment and help with the process, but Highland staff members largely ran the show.

The technology uses a high-tech component with Google’s Android-based smart phones to deliver the imagery. But it marries that small screen with lower-tech Google Cardboard — inexpensive cardboard goggles that simply block out the real world to more fully immerse the viewer inside the alternate setting. Rubber bands and Velcro hold the phones in place at the front of the goggles.

The only true limitation discovered at Highland is that by the end of a day filled with back-to-back Google Expeditions, the phones started reaching the limits of their battery life and a temporary charging station was getting a workout.

The full Google Expeditions technology is not yet available for broader use, so Highland’s participation provided special access to the universe beyond the middle of Beaverton.

Some Highland teachers chose expeditions that closely matched their current lesson plans while others encouraged broader exploration.

“It allows us to use technology to bring the curriculum alive,” Highland principal David Nieslanik said.

“The variety of expeditions they’ve got covers the whole range,” said Grimm, noting optional explorations of technology, science, art, history and more. “A little bit of everything.”

“I chose some places we’d probably never go,” said Erin Sturtz, who teaches seventh-grade science.

She virtually bounced her students from the surface of the moon to the bottom of the ocean to the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat.

“This is kind of the next-best thing. We can show videos, but this kind of puts you there.”TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Heres a close-up look at a pair of the Google Cardboard goggles.