‘Virtual Voyaging’ Through California’s State Parks

What happens when students experience creative tech use for a lesson in nature.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jon Roepke

Recently, thousands of educators, school administrators, creative professionals and government leaders gathered together in Austin, TX for SXSW EDU.

One of the most exciting education events of the year, SXSW EDU brings together a diverse international community of stakeholders to discuss and share ideas, practices and innovations shaping the future of education.

Technology and its use in the classroom is an important part of the discussion at SXSW, and I really enjoyed participating on a panel in addition to being one of the many mentors this year.

A hot area in K-12 education technology is giving students immersive learning experiences.

As a director of product management at an edtech company, my job is to help develop products that can improve those learning experiences inside and outside the classroom.

Utilizing high speed data connections and video conferencing tools, PORTS enables park rangers to interact with kids in real time, taking them on virtual field trips in 10 California State Parks.

Bringing The Kids There

One partnership where we’ve had great success is with a distance learning program established by the California State Parks called PORTS (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Schools).

PORTS was created to provide public schools in low-income areas in California with inventive ways to incorporate field trip experiences that schools may not otherwise be able to provide their students.

As you might remember from your childhood, field trips are fun and engaging ways for kids to learn science and history first hand and often leave real-world memories that can last a lifetime.

Utilizing high speed data connections and video conferencing tools, PORTS enables park rangers to interact with kids in real time, taking them on virtual field trips in 10 California State Parks.

Locations range from the Redwood forests of the North Coast to the Anza-Borrego Desert to Point Lobos Marine Reserve on the rugged Big Sur coast.

Areas of study include topics such as Kelp Forests, Redwood Ecology, Monarch Butterfly Migration, and historical subjects like the Gold Rush.

Park Rangers like Francesca Manheim (pictured, above) turn their utility vehicles into mobile studios to give kids an up-close perspective on the natural world.

Where they used to use a clunky laptop-based system, we gave them the Belkin Tablet Stage, an integrated tablet-based presentation platform. This allows them to use the iPad as a document camera and video presentation system to better showcase the natural world in its infinite detail.

The tablets are much easier for park rangers to carry and move around.  In addition, the video quality is better. The accompanying Stage app lets rangers annotate over live video and draw on the screen, enabling a truly interactive learning experience.

Speaking to the Entire Classroom

On the classroom side, using the Tablet Stage eliminates the need for schools to have a dedicated and expensive video conferencing system.

Instead, all they need is an iPad or other tablet device.

Utilizing the Tablet Stage in the classroom, teachers can customize the view for their students so that the park interpreters can see the entire classroom and speak directly with students.

This gives students the opportunity to ask questions, engage in conversations and annotate their experience with park staff in real-time, without leaving the classroom.

The PORTS program continues to be a huge success.

In California last year, 56,000 K-12 students participated in over 1,500 PORTS programs in 262 schools. Eighty-five percent of teachers surveyed graded their overall experience an “A.”

In addition to the Californian students, 10,000 out of state students used Skype to connect to PORTS. These students were from 38 states as well as in countries across the globe, including Australia, Brazil, India, the Republic of Georgia and Taiwan.

A Real-World (Environmental) Lesson

At my company, we are proud to support PORTS as a technology partner. Seeing kids’ eyes light up when they interact with the rangers is an amazing experience. We are working with PORTS to constantly find new ways to give students new ways of seeing the wonders of nature.

This year, one park ranger even used a GoPro camera mounted on his kayak to provide an underwater view of the kelp forests.

PORTS illustrates how the creative use of technology can provide transformative educational experiences to a broader range of students than ever before.

By doing so, we are able to engage and inspire the next generation about our precious natural environment and their place in helping to preserve it.

Jon Roepke is Director of Product Management at Belkin. If you are looking online at SXSW EDU and would like to learn more, Jon’s panel with PORTS manager Brad Krey and Park Ranger Francesca Manheim was Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.


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