LOLO – Loren Flynn hauled 350 kids around the Travelers’ Rest State Park museum Thursday morning in a two-wheeled trailer.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and aircraft-grade aluminum, Flynn visited classrooms in Alabama, South Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin without ever leaving his Lolo landmark. All he needed fit in a road-worthy cart developed by Bonner’s Alter Enterprises – the same company that designs solar-powered, video-linked grizzly bear traps.
“Obviously, kids from Alabama and Ohio can’t come here, so this is the next best thing,” Flynn said between presentations about what explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carried on their cross-country journey more than 200 years ago. “I’m trying to change my talk a bit – looking for things that are more visually appealing. Like using a flint and steel, where you can zoom in and see the sparks fly off my hand.”
One of the trickiest parts of the new virtual classroom was seeing if any sparks were flying in the remote audiences. The trailer had two 32-inch screens. One showed Flynn and co-host Allison DePui so they could monitor their own movements and displays. The other presented a split screen with two to four classroom views. While he could hear their questions and see raised hands, Flynn said it didn’t quite match the connection he made with kids right at his feet.
On the other hand, the remote kids could see him well enough to wonder about stuff on his display table he hadn’t talked about yet. One girl in Evergreen, Ala., asked what the shiny black box was next to a tray of bitterroots. It turned out to be a replica of the most expensive and modern thing Lewis and Clark carried on their Voyage of Discovery – a clock, essential for coordinating their navigational measurements so they could map where they’d traveled.
The virtual classroom borrowed bits from several different sources. Missoula education media developer World Wide Idea had created a “Read-A-Route” program in which school kids could track literature lessons linked to long-range events like the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska. Each minute spent reading a book related to the race moved the reader a virtual mile down the route. A similar program covers the Voyage of Discovery.
And the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been searching for ways to expand the audience for its natural history sites. Program specialist Ken Soderberg said the first demonstration of the virtual classroom took place at Pictograph State Park in Billings earlier this fall.
For that test, Ryan Alter of Alter Enterprises hauled his video gear, generators and satellite uplinks to the site in a modified golf cart. The next step was to contain the whole rig in a single trailer sturdy enough to be pulled on a freeway or dirt road, but small enough to squeeze into special places.
“This version has been up and running just three days,” Alter said. “We’re not going to win any races pulling this thing. But we wanted something smaller than a big TV van, because you couldn’t fit through the door at Travelers’ Rest.”
Soderberg said the state Parks Division might use the trailer at Bannack State Park’s gold rush displays, or Makoshika State Park’s dinosaur fossil sites. There’s even a possible setup to operate underwater, such as in an aquarium.
The audiences vary as well. In addition to school kids, Alter said he’d had lots of interest from senior citizen centers and nursing homes looking for interactive programs for their residents.
And interaction made the sale. Flynn could see a noticeable flutter of interest when he got to Travelers’ Rest’s most prurient point of historical relevance: Dr. Rush’s Thunder Clapper pills. Rush believed if you had something bad in you, you’d best get it out, and a dose of mercury triggered almost instant diarrhea in the patient. And the Voyage of Discovery carried the pills in its 19th century medical kit.
“Anyone want to be an archaeologist?” he asked the students. “You get to dig through 200-year-old bathrooms.”
While all the Lewis and Clark party’s journals mentioned stopping where Lolo Creek met the Bitterroot River, the exact site wasn’t confirmed until an archaeological survey discovered traces of mercury in a camp latrine that almost certainly came from a Dr. Rush’s Thunder Clapper.
The students also wondered what the most important thing to carry on the journey was. Flynn answered simply: food. Lewis and Clark’s party consumed around 8 or 9 pounds of meat per person per day: “the equivalent of 30 Quarter Pounders with no bun, no pickles, no French fries – that was their diet.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.