Field trips and plant tours are outside classroom activities that promote active learning and demonstrate real world operations. As described by Seifan, Dada, and Berenjian (2019), these value-added experiences encourage students to draw connections and apply concepts learned in class into practice, promoting interest in the subject matter.
As field trips and plant tours were not allowed in 2020 due to the pandemic, I conducted a virtual tour for the students enrolled in a course on thermodynamics and heat transfer. In previous years, we visited a waste-to-energy incineration plant and an engine assembly plant. Instead of abandoning the outdoor learning experience, this past year provided an opportunity to re-design and conduct field trips in a virtual and remote manner, and make use of what was available on our university campus. We made a virtual visit to the University’s chiller plant room, where parts of the air-conditioning and mechanical ventilation equipment to produce cool indoor air for the entire campus were situated.
The key to a virtual tour is to increase student involvement through engaging activities and meaningful interactions. In reflection, let’s look at some approaches in creating an engaging virtual tour experience that is an alternative to in-person field trips.
Instead of showing students multiple photographs and videos, try creating a virtual tour with a panorama photograph of the location through the use of a 360° camera. The camera, mounted on a stand at approximately eye-level of a person, has multiple side-to-side and back-to-back lenses, each capturing a fixed angle of the view. These images are then stitched together and merge each angle to produce a high-resolution, 360° still image of the location shot. The final image is then uploaded onto a platform that is able to host virtual tours. There are many free and paid platforms available, but the key is to choose a platform that can be easily accessed by students. Note, that some models of 360° cameras are able to capture videos too, however, a 360° still photograph is easier to create for beginners.
If the location is big, consider taking multiple 360° photographs of various sections of the location. These photographs are then uploaded as different scenes to the same virtual tour. For example, Scene 1 is outside the chiller plant room, Scene 2 is inside the chiller plant room, and Scene 3 is inside the control room of the chiller plant room.
I used Insta360 Pro2 and used Tour Creator as the virtual tour platform, however, it will no longer be available on June 30, 2021; other free options are available!
Include close-up photographs, description, and background sound
The 360° photograph is designed to put the student (or viewer) at the center of the photograph, such that the student explores or looks around the location by moving the cursor. As the photograph cannot be zoomed in and the student cannot physically move around to a different point in the photograph, some details may be lacking. For example, a 360° photograph of a kitchen will not be able to capture the back of a refrigerator. An image overlay, such as a close-up photograph of the back of a refrigerator, can be added as a specific point of interest (e.g. back of the refrigerator) on the 360° photograph. Text description or a voiceover narration of the overall location or specific point of interest in that location highlights interesting information to students.
For a more immersive experience, consider recording the sound of the location and uploading this as background audio into the virtual tour. In my virtual tour, I recorded the ambient sound of the location, which were sounds from the pumps and compressors.
Create tasks for students to collaborate and complete during class time
It is recommended to conduct the virtual tour synchronously during class time to ensure optimal student participation and to allow for discussion and reflection. During class time, students work in groups and complete tasks related to the virtual tour. To make learning more interesting and to develop students’ curiosity and knowledge, tasks can be created in a scaffolded manner that builds on one another, such that the earlier task must be answered correctly in order to move on to the next. Students are expected to make and collect observations and relate what they see in the virtual tour to the concepts they learned in class.
To complete these tasks, students can access an online collaborative whiteboard platform, such as miro, which in addition to the web-based virtual tour, allows team members to record notes, add drawings, and insert text and figures synchronously with minimal lag time. Since this was the first time my students used this web-based platform, they spent five minutes playing around with built-in widgets and tools. Throughout the entire class, students discussed in their breakout rooms on the video conferencing platform. Meanwhile, the teaching assistant and I dropped by every breakout room at regular intervals to check on their progress and to answer any questions they had.
Discussion and reflection
At the end of the virtual tour, close the breakout session and bring all students back to the main room for reflective sharing and discussion. In particular, with data provided by our building management team, we discussed the efficiency of the air-conditioning equipment installed on campus, safety aspects in operating such systems, and the environmental and social considerations with any air-conditioning systems to satisfy human comfort. This reflective journey of the virtual tour highlighted the inter-disciplinary nature of real-world problems and solutions. The whiteboard was then saved, exported, and distributed as a PDF file to each student.
Invite an expert
In addition to virtual tours, you may want to consider inviting an expert to help guide your tour. An expert is a person with specialized experience about the subject or location. By interacting with the students, students are often more engaged and respond more meaningfully. Misconceptions are corrected and students draw connections from the concepts taught in class to the real world and better understand the differences. Students can also learn more about the operation and maintenance of the plant or location. This may further motivate and interest students beyond examinations.
Conversely, if students are allowed to return to campus, but in-person field trips and plant tours are not possible, the classroom can be modified to include multiple projector displays with ambient sound turned on for an immersive experience. Students will still need to access the web-based virtual tour for close-up photographs and information. Teaching assistants and instructors can act as guides, bringing each group around the modified classroom. Task completion should be done using a physical whiteboard with each group assigned to their own whiteboard.
Prior to the pandemic, I had not thought of creating and conducting a virtual tour and was definitely not an avid user of digital educational tools. This pandemic has certainly made me rethink and reimagine teaching and learning to increase students’ appreciation and enjoyment in the subject matter. I hope this inspires you to try something new in class!
Li Ling Apple Koh is a senior lecturer at the science, mathematics and technology cluster with joint affiliation to engineering product development at Singapore University of Technology and Design. She has been actively developing and executing interdisciplinary activities to demonstrate the interconnectivity between various subjects and to promote students’ appreciation in the applications of science and engineering concepts.
Seifan, M., Dada, D., & Berenjian, A. (2019). The effect of virtual field trip as an introductory tool for an engineering real field trip. Education for Chemical Engineers, 27, 6-11. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ece.2018.11.005