Simulations in Google expeditions and their role in Science and Geography lessons


The Open University (OU), UK is conducting a school-based research project (funded by Google and the OU; July 2016 - June 2017) on the potential use of Virtual Reality via Google Expeditions in secondary school science and geography.

Google Expeditions is a Virtual Reality (VR) approach being promoted by Google in schools globally. Google Expeditions (GEs) are guided tours (field trips) of places that students experience on a smartphone through a VR viewer called Google cardboard.  

GEs comprise of 360 photospheres of places and events - for example, Buckingham Palace, The Great Barrier Reef and the coral bleaching in the Reef due to climate change, Borneo Rain Forest, and the International Space Station. These visualisations enable students and teachers to experience places that may be hard or impossible to visit in real life by everybody. GEs also have simulations - for example, the respiratory or the circulatory system in a human body, the solar system, the activity in volcanoes during eruption, etc. These simulations are virtual representations of otherwise invisible concepts, processes and events.

Simulations in Science and Geography

In our empirical investigations involving using GEs in lessons on upper-primary and secondary schools in England, science and geography students and teachers have shared their experiences of learning with simulations. Teachers can use Expeditions to teach various concepts and processes that might be difficult to explain even with physical models in the lab. Here is a list of some of the GEs that show simulations, from small scale to large scale concepts and events:

1.     Astronomy

2.     Auditory System

3.     Earthquakes

4.     Electromagnetic Spectrum

5.     Extinction

6.     Fertilization

7.     Human Anatomy – Respiratory System

8.     Hydrosphere

9.     Muscular System

10.  Nervous System

11.  Photosynthesis

12.  Pollination

13.  Pregnancy

14.  Solar System

15.  The Eyes

16.  Viruses

17.  Volcanoes

These are some observations from the use of the simulation of the respiratory system that the teachers have used in our school visits.

Perceptions on Simulations

  • Understanding concepts and processes through realistic simulations:
“the animation was very realistic, therefore I could take more knowledge away from the lesson […] these images can […] help me explain about the respiratory system in a much larger amount of detail (Student, Respiratory system Expedition)
“It gave a visual representation of something we could not thoroughly explore […] therefore not only has it expanded my knowledge on the respiratory system […] but it has also given me a memorable image […] for when I do my exams” (Student)
  • Showing connections between the organs of the human body
“it gave me an insight on where exactly processes take place and how the specific cells are adapted” (Student, Respiratory system Expedition)
“[…] instead of trying to create an image in my head, I have everything in front of me […] it helped me compare, by putting a normal lung and a smoker’s lung next to each other” (Student, Respiratory system Expedition)
  • Showing detailed, 3D images of otherwise inaccessible processes
 “The other resources are quite flat […] – so if you take the alveoli, for example, which is a sphere, you can see the capillaries wrapped around […] it’s very difficult to see when it’s on just a flat piece of paper” (Biology teacher, Respiratory system Expedition).
“actually seeing where the [alveoli] and why it is and the capillary network around it, being able to picture it, I think helps them link those things together” (Biology teacher, Respiratory system Expedition)
 “with the digestive system…, because I used this one before with the stomach where you just get a flat thing of the stomach [from an image]. With this one [with the Google Expedition] you can see where the acid is released. You see the different entrances and the exits and you can see the food in there, the juices as well, so it gives a real clear image of what’s happening inside the organs, not just a flat image outside.” (Biology teacher, Respiratory system Expedition).

Simulations help to visualise or enact the otherwise abstract concepts (e.g. formation of the solar system) in a learning environment. They enable students and teachers to experience real-life-like scenarios that are not possible to view in the real world, and help concretise learning and teaching. A number of studies have reported that inquiry learning based on simulations leads to higher levels of acquisition of domain knowledge than more direct forms of instruction such as a presentation by a teacher or using text-based materials.  

Simulations enable self-exploration by students. Simulations allow students and teachers to have experiences of concepts, processes and events, thus typically supporting the experiential learning pedagogical paradigm.


Dr. Matthew Kam, Research Lead, Google Education

Dr Ana-Despina Tudor and Professor Shailey Minocha at The Open University, UK

The project partners are: UK's Field Studies Council (Steve Tilling and Dave Morgan), UK's Association for Science Education (Richard Needham and Marianne Cutler) and Geographical Association (Becky Kitchen).