By Sam Pilon

Field trips are most often a way to take learning out of the classroom and provide new spaces and experiences that students can’t easily have at school. And they can enhance what students are learning by connecting classroom studies with real-world examples. As the children’s education summer intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, I’ve had the privilege of leading many school group tours, camps, and scout programs. Teaching the students about the plants and systems in our conservatory, trails, and display gardens is a very rewarding experience. Nothing compares to seeing a child’s face light up with excitement when they discover a plant they are familiar with or when they make that connection between their school studies and a plant or animal they see at the gardens.

Here I am explaining the parts of the plant
to the students as one of our docents,
Dave Wooten, records with a tablet.

We’ve done many types of tours with different themes from bugs to plant parts, ecosystems to biomes, and others, but I was surprised to learn that we were trying an entirely new type of visit—a virtual tour. Of course that immediately brought some questions to mind. Can we give these kids an experience through a screen that’s similar to actually being here? Will they really learn anything? How is this different from just showing them a video? What are the benefits of this kind of tour?

I was anxious to see how it would work out, and more importantly how the students would react to the tour. It was definitely a team effort to make this successful. To set up, we had one or two tour guides stationed in each room of our conservatory to explain several plants and talk about the biome that the plants would be found in. We used a tablet as our camera, and our tour was streamed onto a projector in a school classroom. Our cameraman (shout out to volunteer Dave Wooten!) went around to each station as the tour continued, zooming in on details of the plants and showing the parts that were being talked about. The tour was a huge success and was an amazing experience to be part of. All of my initial questions were quickly answered.

Volunteer Dave Wooten (left) records docent
Lynn Fouchey as she explains the tropical house
in the conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

How is this different from just showing them a video?
For me, this was the most important question to answer. We were lucky to have the ability to hear actual responses from the children. This created a more personal experience than simply showing a video. We would ask the kids to notice things about the plants we were showing, respond to questions about the plants, and have them recall things we talked about earlier. We even had a Q&A section at the end of the tour and were able to not only answer their questions, but also show them by moving the camera to what we were talking about.

Can we give these kids a similar experience through a screen as to actually being here? Will they really learn anything?
From my experience, the students were able to learn about as much in a virtual tour as they could if they were physically there. Some experiences, of course, aren’t available in a virtual tour—like the smell and feel of the plants, or kids not being able to fully look at what’s around them. Yet overall I see this as a nice option if schools don’t have the opportunity for a real-life visit.

Last January, Saline, Michigan, Harvest Elementary
schoolchildren participated in a first-ever virtual tour
beamed from Matthaei about biomes and plant adaptations.
A virtual tour puts everyone on the same screen, so to speak:
because each child views the same video, the  program allows
all the kids and teacher Nicole Toth to enjoy a similar
learning experience.

What are the benefits of this kind of tour?
There are several when you compare a virtual to an in-person tour. It’s a great opportunity if travel isn’t available for whatever reason. Students still enjoy a new experience in a new place, which demonstrates that they don’t necessarily have to leave their school to do so. It’s also beneficial because each student gets to experience the exact same tour and stay together in one group. Finally, the teacher gets to go on the tour with the students as one group and she knows exactly what the kids learned.

As of this writing, virtual tours aren’t fully up and running as a Matthaei-Nichols program…yet. There are still a lot of things to consider before we decide whether to make virtual tours a reality, but the idea that it could be in the works is an exciting thought and I think it is something that we should keep exploring!

Samantha Pilon, Children’s
Education Intern. 
Sam is
from Southgate, Michigan,
and just graduated with a
Bachelor of Science degree
in Program in the Environment
with an emphasis on terrestrial
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