In a low-income school in California's Riverside Unified School District, a student saw snow for the first time last year — but not in real life. He looked through a phone-driven viewfinder as part of a Google Expeditions pilot that immersed him in a 3-D field trip to the snow. 

The power of these field trips in four schools prompted the Southern California district to incorporate more virtual reality this year, with the ultimate goal of having students create their own virtual reality experiences.

"We really want our students to become socially engaged contributors," said Steven Dunlap, director of Innovation and Learner Engagement at Riverside Unified School District. "Virtual reality is a great way to do that."

They're starting with teacher-created content from Expeditions, which includes 360-degree photo spheres, 3-D images and video, and ambient sounds, along with annotations for teachers who act as field trip guides. They also have two types of virtual reality viewers that use phones to access the content: Mattel viewers made of hard plastic and Merge Virtual Reality viewers made of soft foam.

The soft foam viewers protect the phones and viewers when students drop them, which has happened at least once, said Steve T. Kong, instructional services specialist for tech integration at Riverside Unified School District. Virtual reality headsets tend to be made for adults' heads, but the foam ones fit better on students and allow them to move the lenses in and out to get a clearer picture, said Caryn McLoughlin, staff development specialist for tech integration. 

This fall, McLoughlin is going out to 11 elementary school classrooms with the virtual reality kits after teachers in those classrooms filled out a form saying they were interested. She's giving them quick training tips, and then the teachers are leading their classes on a field trip. Once all the classroom visits are done, the district will hold a professional development day to help teachers learn how to incorporate the virtual reality experiences into unit and lesson plans, she said.

After the district settles on a platform to host student-created virtual reality experiences, students at one elementary school will tackle their first project: creating a virtual tour of their school with a 360-degree camera. 

"We really want to go from just students consuming this content," Kong said, "to students actually creating the content."