Watching sturgeons swim past, sharks cruise overhead and Amazon fishes dart by are some of the amazing sights at Shedd Aquarium. But when we have programing that takes place off site, the Shedd Learning team members have to ask themselves, “How can we bring the experience of viewing Shedd Aquarium’s exhibits and animals to children?” For the Park Voyagers program, which takes place at Chicago Park District sites, our answer was to use virtual reality (VR) headsets to show kids 360-degree videos of those exhibits at Shedd Aquarium.

Participants who viewed the360-degree videos loved the experience; some even said they felt like they were in the water with the animals. While excitement was high, the greatest impact of the headsets was the volume of questions that kids had after using them. Their eyes were wide with curiosity after each viewing. The video of At Home on the Great Lakes showed the sturgeon exhibit up close, which provoked the most excitement with comments like, “Is that a monster? What is that?” When they took the headsets off, they had huge smiles and would say, “That was awesome! Do you have any more videos?” The 360-degree video of the Wild Reef exhibit provided the feeling of sitting at the base of a teeming reef. Questions quickly arose about the relationships between the variety of animals they were seeing swim by and the names of all the sharks and other fishes. Participants used this experience of observing our reef habitat to inspire their own coral reef stop-motion videos.

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This was the perfect audience for debuting these immersive virtual views of Shedd. Since 1998, Park Voyagers has been bringing educational programming to Chicago Park District facilities in often underserved communities. Shedd works in collaboration with 10 other Chicago museums to provide this free after-school program for children ages 8 to10 and their families. Park Voyagers consists of both after-school and family workshop components.

These 360-degree videos weren’t the only opportunity to connect with the living world. In fall 2016, Shedd learning specialists conducted 27 after-school sessions at five Chicago Park District locations. Participants explored the diversity of aquatic life through hands-on activities, small-group work, discussions and presentations, all led by Shedd’s team of passionate learning specialists. During workshop sessions, participants were introduced to three aquatic environments: the fresh waters of Illinois, the Amazon River and coral reefs of the Philippines. They examined how humans interact with the varied ecosystems, making specific connections to amphibians in conjunction with Shedd’s Amphibians special exhibit.

Introducing VR headsets into Park Voyagers directly aligned with the program’s mission: inspiring and empowering kids and their families to explore Chicago museums. What better way to do this than to immerse them in an exhibit through a 360-degree video?

The experience had the most impact for kids whose parks did not participate in the family field trip to Shedd because it gave them a “real-life” experience inside our exhibits that might spark the desire to visit and explore with their families. It also sets them up for that moment of, “Hey! This is where I was when I was using the headset!” while exploring the aquarium.

A lot of thought goes into these transformative experiences. During the planning phase, each program goes through a brainstorm process with the manager of digital learning to investigate innovative ways in which technology can support learning goals or create efficiencies for staff.

With Park Voyagers, we realized we could use our new 360-degree camera and virtual reality headsets to create a connection with kids and the habitats they were learning about: coral reefs, the Amazon and the Great Lakes. Having a dedicated digital learning team allows for Shedd’s Learning department to stay on top of trends and pilot new technology. (Want to learn more about this brainstorm process? Read our paper, SAMR: A Model for Technology Integration in Museums, which the digital learning team will present at the Museums and the Web conference on April 21. )

What’s next for 360-degree video and VR in our Learning with Shedd programs? We are always looking at how we can innovate within our programs to use technology to expand and improve educational experiences. Our Club Shedd teens are currently exploring, creating and editing 360-degree videos that will allow for an interactive learning experience. We are exploring options for a new underwater 360-degree camera so that we can create a virtual reality experience that mimics the path of our underwater robots (ROVs). We’ll also continue to build on the VR experience for Park Voyagers participants next year. You can check out some of our 360-degree videos for yourself! (Note that these currently do not work in Internet Explorer browsers, but do work in Chrome.)

Great Lakes 360
Amazon Rising 360
Wild Reef 360

— Miranda Kerr, Megan Stern and Jackie Formoso, Learning department