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Now students take field trips online

High fuel prices make virtual field trips popular with schools – but no substitute for the real thing.

Almost there: Glacier National Park's Bill Hayden displays a podcast of a grizzly bear at Lake McDonald in Montana. Such videos and other interactive elements are part of virtual field trips.

Craig Moore/AP/file

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When seventh graders in Stockton took a field trip this week to see elephant seals, they didn't even step outside their school. Instead, with the help of a projector and a video camera, the students teleconferenced with a state park guide on the California coast.

Across a distance of 100 miles, students on the so-called "virtual field trip" got to talk with the guide, watch seals throw sand on themselves, and hear the blubbery beasts belch and bark – all without a yellow bus or permission slip.

"If you can't go somewhere, this can be the next best thing," says Craig Wedegaertner, an administrator at Marshall Middle School in Stockton. "Or, it can be used to prepare [students] before they go there."

As the days grow long and the school calendar short, field trip season is in full swing. But with fuel prices rocketing, some schools are discovering virtual field trips as a cost-effective way to add new – or farther afield – excursions.

"We are beginning to reach the tipping point" with virtual field trips, says Ruth Blankenbaker, executive director of the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC) in Indianapolis.

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