On a humid morning in late August, three members of the Encyclopedia Virginia (EV) team braved D.C. traffic to show 150 Fairfax County social studies teachers some exciting new features of the encyclopedia. Participating at training sessions at Mclean and Oakton high schools, the educators explored EV entries ranging from the early Jamestown settlement to the civil rights activist Oliver Hill. They also got to see some newly added primary sources such as a digitized copy and transcription of the First Charter of Virginia (1606) and a high-resolution image of a bug-infested piece of Civil War–era hardtack. But the highlight of the demonstrations came when EV got to present its latest feature: 3D virtual tours of some of Virginia’s historic sites.
Working with Google and its Earth Outreach team for the last year and a half, EV has been photographing the interiors of Virginia historic sites and publishing them as StreetView panoramic tours through Google Maps. To date this list includes:
- Ash Lawn-Highland, Charlottesville
- Poplar Forest, Lynchburg
- Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, Lynchburg
- Bacon’s Castle, Surry
- Smith’s Fort Plantation, Surry
- Menokin, Warsaw
- Historic Christ Church, Lancaster County
- John Marshall House, Richmond
- Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond
These “virtual tours” have proven to be extremely popular with Virginia’s educational community. At last year’s Virginia Council of Social Studies Educators Conference in Roanoke, one teacher told EV that her school district’s budget had been slashed and there was very little-to-no money for field trips. When she saw the virtual tour of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest—an octagonal retreat Jefferson built outside Lynchburg—she was immediately struck by the possibility of being able to take field trips without having to actually leave the classroom. The notion of using the virtual tours to supplement a dwindling field trip budget was reinforced during the inservice session in Fairfax when a teacher explained that her entire district can take only one field trip each year and it is always to the same place. She explained that these virtual tours could expand her students’ exploration of Virginia.
While navigating these distant places from the desktop was pretty cool, the most amazing moment may have been when EV staff showed the educators an affordable kit from Google that allows students and teachers to make their own virtual reality goggles out of cardboard!
The Google Cardboard kit turns the above-mentioned virtual tours into completely immersive experiences that feel like something out of science fiction. For less than $20 students can assemble their own kit, and thanks to the tours EV produced, walk through the Anne Spencer House and Garden or Bacon’s Castle without using any money from the school’s field trip budget.
Over the next few months EV will attend other Virginia education conferences, including the Virginia Council of Social Studies Educators, where Brendan Wolfe will give a presentation on the elusive and fascinating figure of Paquiquineo. At these conferences we will speak with teachers about ways they can incorporate Encyclopedia Virginia, Google Cardboard, and these virtual tours into their classrooms.