Google virtual reality app teleports students from Mars to Coral Sea

Google is teaming up with hundreds of schools to take kids on field trips where no bus has ever gone.

Its new program, "Expeditions," uses virtual reality to teleport students to far-flung places often seen in their textbooks, from the Great Wall of China to the surface of Mars. It's part of a widening initiative not just in the U.S., but also in Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, reports CBS News correspondent Vinita Nair.

One sixth grade science class plunged deep into Australia's Coral Sea, getting 360-degree views of the Great Barrier Reef.

"Oh I see the scuba diver!" one excited student said.

The classroom scuba divers crisscrossed the planet to Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, getting an up-close look at sea lions far below the surface of the ocean.

They paused to take notes, before losing themselves in the imagery again. Their teacher, Allison Davis, guided the tour from her tablet, stopping periodically to discuss what they were seeing.

"What tells us that the coral is thriving?" Davis asked the students.

"They're really colorful...they're not bleached or anything," answered one student.

Davis says it's a learning experience for both the student and the teacher, and believes her students are gaining a better understanding of her lessons.

"They point things out that I wouldn't even think to be looking at," said Davis. "They're making connections to things that they're hearing on the news and going on in the world."

Those 360-degree views are created by stitching together photographs from Google Street View. Sixteen GoPro cameras are also used to make the trip feel lifelike.

"I think it's really cool because it feels like you're there," described one student.

Google Program Director Jennifer Holland, a former educator herself, says teachers can tailor the voyages to their curriculum.

"We had a math teacher that actually created an expedition on the Great Wall of China to calculate the number of bricks and angles used. And that same expedition was used by a 10th-grade Chinese language teacher to teach vocab," Holland said.

The kit includes a smartphone, cardboard viewers, a tablet for the teacher and a router that allows expeditions to run offline if necessary. Google says they will provide the kits free of cost for the first year, but will eventually charge schools.

"We want to make it as accessible as possible," Holland said.

New York Labs Middle School Principal Megan Adams says for cash-strapped schools, investing in the program may be hard, but says it is an important tool.

"There is always a question of costs and really thinking about the maintenance of the technology long term," said Adams. "Some kids might see this technology and still prefer a textbook, but some kids will see this technology who don't normally engage in reading or discussion and all of a sudden understand the concepts."

Google is working on expanding the program to explore career options by virtually shadowing professionals in their work space, using veterinarians or even news reporters.