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Third grade students at the Larry J. Macaluso Elementary School, use VR technology for environmental studies John Pavoncello, 717-505-5449/@Jpavoncello

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A virtual field trip in class Wednesday gave Red Lion Area third graders a firsthand look into what can happen when natural resources are not conserved.

Students in Steven Smith's class at Larry J. Macaluso Elementary School saw a 360-degree view of a landfill, prompting gasps and exclamations of "That's disgusting!"

"I can see a bunch of plastic bottles in here that could be recycled," one student said.

Students do not yet have the virtual reality glasses compatible with the program, Smith said, but even without them students were amazed at what they saw.

That kind of engagement is key as the state shifts its focus to environmental health in March.

The Great American Cleanup of PA is part of a nationwide effort March 1 through May 31 to organize community cleanup events, and the state's focus day is Saturday, April 21st. 

Groups can register for their own cleaning events through the initiative's website, and receive free supplies from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

More: PHOTOS: Volunteers take on massive cleanup effort

"We've become a 'throwaway' society," Smith said, referring to a lack of conservation, which is why students need to learn how important it is to protect the world in which they live.

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Natural resources: In class on Wednesday, Feb. 27, students learned about fossil fuels and renewable energy.

They learned that renewables, such as wind, solar and hydroelectric energy, replenish themselves and never run out, and they can help combat combat climate change because they produce no direct greenhouse gas emissions.

More: 9 York County classrooms to learn about turning trash into energy

More: Puppets teach York County kids the 'magic' of recycling

But they have downsides, too. These sources have difficulty generating power on a large scale, and wind farms and dams can disrupt wildlife and migration patterns.

Fossil fuels, such as oil, coal and natural gas, cannot be replaced once they're used up because it took hundreds of millions of years for them to form in the earth, and geopolitical issues arise when there's a scarcity.

That's why it's important to conserve them, Smith explained in his lesson.

Smith also incorporates current events in his lessons, showing how what students are learning affects the community.

"That's a piece that's missing for a lot of students." he said. "They're not always tuned in to the kinds of things that are going on in the world."

He also made sure during the review process that students understood the facts behind the issues.

"That's an opinion, and I agree with your opinion," Smith said of a written student response to the landfill, "but tell why it is gross."

Technology: One of the biggest reasons students were engaged about the topic was the use of new technology in recent years. 

In a traditional lesson, the teacher would give a presentation and students would read from a textbook, Smith said, but there are so many opportunities online now.

For example, he uses Nearpod, which is "sort of like Powerpoint on steroids," he said. It's an interactive program that involves a lot more than just  looking at a screen.

In class, students placed pictures of natural resources on virtual sticky notes, where the whole class can see what they post.

Smith said it's good teaching practice because it allows him to constantly check for understanding during the lesson. He will get real-time results of how students are responding so he can see where they need help and know what to plan for future lessons.

More: Middle school outreach, apprenticeships needed for tech education

Smith uses a variety of digital tools, but he doesn't do the same thing each class because he wants students to remain excited and engaged.

"Anything that you do every day — no matter how cool it is — it just becomes everyday," he said.

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