Engaging Students with Google Expeditions

Last Wednesday, my school had the honor of hosting Google Expeditions for a day filled with fun. (And don’t worry, lots of learning too!) I signed up for the Expeditions Pioneer Program in March knowing that most likely they would not be doing any more visits in our area. To my surprise and excitement, they contacted me in April letting me know they’d be in San Diego in May. When I got the email, I started dancing around my classroom.

In order to coordinate the Expeditions, another teacher and I got subs so we could help teachers manage devices and troubleshoot in our two Expeditions spaces (library and cafeteria). My sub was awesome, and took pictures while I hosted my own classes. He had so much fun participating with Google Expeditions and learning along with our students.

I loved watching students who are usually disengaged asking questions and exploring. When their class’s time was up, they didn’t want to leave! A few of the teachers who brought their classes had never used Google Cardboard before, and had similar reactions to the students–awe and wonder. I loved sharing this experience with my school, and I’m thankful for Cristianna from the Google Expeditions team, my fellow teachers, my supportive admin, and for our students for making this incredible day happen.

Below is my writeup that I submitted to my district’s newsletter: 


MV Expeditions 1.JPG
My 3rd period science class checking out
active volcanoes from around the world!

On Wednesday May 18, 2016, Mar Vista Academy welcomed the Google Expeditions team for a day filled with virtual reality adventures and excitement. “Expeditions are guided tours of places schools buses can’t go. They are comprised of virtual reality panoramas and are led by a guide or teacher. Using a tablet, teachers can guide up to 50 students wearing virtual reality viewers. Teachers can guide their class and point out highlights while referring to editable notes” (www.google.com/edu/expeditions).

Students turning to look at a feature pointed out
by their teacher.
The technology is simple. Each student has a Google Cardboard with a smartphone enclosed. The smartphones are connected to the teacher tablet via wifi. The teacher selects the expedition from a list of over two hundred locations around the world, and sends out a 360° image to the student device. Students are able to independently explore this image simply by turning their head, looking up, and looking down. The teacher platform comes with notes about the location, people, and organisms at the location, making it easy for a teacher to guide an Expedition with little to no background knowledge.

AVID Excel students on their Expedition
Throughout the day, twelve teachers and over three hundred students participated in the Expeditions. Students visited the rainforest, observed ocean life, traveled to the moon, and explored historical sites, without ever leaving school.

Students had a blast visiting new places and learning as they explored. Seventh grader Andrew says, “It can help me see things that would be impossible to look at in schools and I will be able to understand things better since I am a tactile learner.” Our students enjoyed their new learning, and even students who do not typically enjoy school found themselves highly engaged. Seventh grader Vanessa reports that she “learned about the research they are doing to bring back some extinct species.” Our seventh graders studied about human impact on ecosystems and endangered species this semester in science. Eighth grader Jamie reports “My favorite part of the Google Expeditions experience was being inside a picture and always having something to look at, no matter which side you turn. I mostly enjoyed seeing animals in their natural habitat.” Not only were there many science-related expeditions, but also our students were able to view historic battlefields, such as Gettysburg or analyze the geometry in the architecture of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
Mr. Williams taking his 7th grade math class
to the Great Barrier Reef.

Ms. Johal exploring the surface of the moon with her
8th grade science students
Additionally, our Mar Vista Academy teachers were wowed by the experience. Our teachers were just as engaged as our students. Mr. Williams enjoyed taking his seventh grade math students, and perfectly sums up the experience. “The Google Expeditions activity was a great hook for my class and a fun way to get students thinking about the world around them. We toured the Great Barrier Reef for the purpose of analyzing percents. An actual trip for this simple purpose would have obviously been cost prohibitive. Letting students explore on their own generated great excitement and conversation and then being able to guide students to a portion of each picture to view allowed me to teach at the same time. The reflection and sharing after we put the google devices away was surprising. Student that are sometimes afraid to share their work or justify their answers in math were eager to share what they thought and liked about the expedition. I noticed more participating from those students during class immediately following the Google Expedition.” Each and every teacher that participated had similar thoughts about their experiences.

Students and teachers have been asking if and when Google Expeditions will come back to Mar Vista Academy. Everyone had a great time, and we exploring the world together.


Thank you, Google Expeditions!



Breakout EDU Digital

(Cross-posted to Justin’s blog and DitchBook blog)

Playing an Ice Age themed game with 8th graders

Breakout EDU is an immersive learning platform developed by James Sanders and Mark Hammons. After visiting an escape room (a room where you are locked in and have to solve clues and riddles to escape) with a group of students, James and Mark noted how engaged the students were while working on the escape. Realizing most educators can’t lock students in a room (for obvious legal and ethical reasons), the two decided to flip the concept – take a wooden box, add a hasp and a few locks, and provide clues. Let the students’ natural curiosity and excitement do the rest. By the end, students will have (hopefully) found and figured out all of the clues, enabling them to unlock all the locks and complete the game before time runs out.

Overthrow the Co-Dictators in 7th grade science

We (Justin & Mari) have run multiple Breakout EDU games with our students, and love seeing how engaged and motivated our students are, even those who less likely to participate in class. We realized how much fun these games were, while also being educational. We wanted to replicate them using only digital tools. With Google Forms and data validation, we were able to recreate the locked box and hasp. In our games, all clues are linked directly within a Google Site, and take some serious detective work to solve.

This project started small, and we expected to share the games around, then move on with other things. When we sent out the initial invitation to Beta test our games on March 25, 2016, we were blown away with over 200 responses in less than 36 hours. After the initial Beta test and feedback, we released our games and website out to a wider audience on Facebook and Twitter.

Playing a digital game in 7th grade AVID 

In mid-April, James Sanders reached out to us and asked if we’d like to officially become Breakout EDU Digital, and take on breakoutedu.com/digital. We responded with an immediate “yes!” and began integrating our content into the Breakout EDU website.

We’ve certainly learned a lot since we first launched our games. One lesson we’ve learned is that we constantly need to be flexible in our teaching. As part of our games we have a feedback form that allows us to hear directly from the people who are playing our games. We act on all feedback that we feel improves the games, which is something an effective teacher should always do as you gauge student reaction in class.

Overthrow the Co-Dictators in 7th grade science

Resiliency and growth mindset has been another huge focal point of this project. We purposely make the games challenging and rather in-depth. Sometimes people contact us asking for answers or hints, and we encourage them to explore the games alongside their students, to show that teachers don’t always hold all the knowledge. This may make some teachers uncomfortable, but the connections your class forms as you decode the games together will pay off in dividends.

You can definitely tie your instructional content into a Breakout EDU, whether the box version or the digital type. For our digital game “Alcatraz Night Escape,” we included a number of facts and information about the history of Alcatraz necessary to unlock the Form. Other users who have created their own have also tied their content into their digital breakouts. Imagine how much more engaging this is than reading it from a textbook!

So how can you develop your own Breakout EDU Digital games? We’ve tried to streamline the process by having a “Build Your Own” button on the website. These are a series of screencast tutorials that model different elements of our games. The most important element is the Google Form that acts as the box. Under advanced settings on “short answer” (in the new Forms) or “text” (in the old Forms,) you must turn on “data validation.” From there, type in the desired response and add something like “Still locked” or “Keep trying” in the help text. If you don’t, it will give the answer to the students. There are plenty more tutorials available for you to watch, and we’re always on the lookout for new ideas!

Sharing a digital game with my Tech Tuesday lunch crew

One of the critical elements of the original Breakout EDU is the collaboration and communication between the classmates. With Breakout EDU Digital, there might not always been that inherent need for collaboration since each device is its own box. We have presented at a GAFE Summit (Mari live, and Justin on Google Hangouts) where we had participants play a short demo game. The session started out with everyone on their own devices, and the naturally paired up and then formed larger groups to work together to solve the breakout. Additionally, we recently hosted a Breakout EDU Digital LIVE event with eighteen adults working together to solve a brand new game. These events proved that the collaboration factor definitely takes it to the next level.

Presenting at GAFE Summit IV on Breakout EDU Digital
Justin on Google Hangouts + our good friend Ari!

We predict an exciting future for Breakout EDU Digital. We are currently getting ready to launch a Digital Sandbox, where community members can submit their own games for others to play and provide feedback. Additionally, we are both building their own individual games and collaborating on games, and are on pace to release one game per week for the foreseeable future. We always love feedback and suggestions on new directions and how to improve our games.

So what are you waiting for? Go visit breakoutedu.com and breakoutedu.com/digital to learn more about how you can use it in your classroom. The students will be engaged, will collaborate, will develop interpersonal skills, will have fun, and will even learning something along the way!