On December 4, 2013, the Garden became both the first public botanic garden—and the first Chicago cultural institution—to host a live field trip, with approximately 1,000 students across the country using Google+ Connected Hangouts on Air.
Our field trip topic was the impact of an invasive species on an ecosystem—specifically, emerald ash borer on our native ash trees. We wanted to make this complicated issue relevant and interactive for fifth- and sixth-grade students.
There are many fun things you can do with a live broadcast. The complex subject of balanced ecosystems and invasive species needed something unusual to capture students’ imaginations and attention. Our solution: begin our field trip with an original graphic comic about the emerald ash borer (EAB), and conclude by cutting down an infected tree during our broadcast. The live broadcast format also allowed our educators and horticulturists to go off script for some on-screen improvisation.
Taking advantage of our medium, we presented from multiple locations—switching to read and show our comic book, present GIS (Geographical Information Systems) maps illustrating the spread of EAB in the U.S., view EAB larvae under a microscope in our science lab, and show how to diagnose the damage on—and treat (or remove)—an infected tree in the woods. The finale was cutting down the infected tree—live on camera! Before we signed off, we had an interactive Q&A between classrooms and Garden experts.
A series of technical and dress rehearsals—one with the three participating classrooms—were necessary to troubleshoot the quirks of Google+ Hangout on Air. We chose three classrooms from across the country as active participants who were able to ask questions on camera, and be seen by our experts and others tuned in. (Viewing classrooms can still participate by typing in questions during the broadcast.)
From a technical standpoint, it was critical to know the limits of this technology. Google Hangouts currently allows up to ten screens to actively participate in an on-air event, and our entire program had to be done live, as Google Hangout on Air does not allow for streaming video. We used four of our allotted screens at the Garden: one for our graphic novel with narration, one in the lab, and two in the field. The screens were controlled through a central operator (me!) who acted as an on-air producer, switching from one screen to another to control the on-air experience. We used two smartphones to transmit from the field, and tested several models with different operating systems and carriers to maximize image quality (especially in the woods), and keep gaps in the transmission to a minimum. Macintosh computers provided the indoor Garden screens; one was dedicated to the microscope, and the other used its built-in camera. The computers were hard-wired to the Ethernet network to ensure the best transmission possible. Delays were a minor issue: even under the best of circumstances, we experienced a short lag switching from user to user. This was particularly problematic when fielding classroom questions.
While a virtual field trip is not a substitute for an actual visit to the Garden, it can offer something very different and unique, bringing together classrooms from all over the country. Virtual classrooms can also enrich classroom activities in schools facing budget shortfalls and scant funding for field trips. This new tool from Google can help us (and others) raise awareness about topics that affect us all from local to global impact. Follow us on Google+ to be alerted to our next virtual field trip and other Garden updates.
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