Teachers is rural elementary schools in Montana often don’t have the time and resources to provide their students with specific, in-depth, scientific lessons on subjects like ecology and wildlife biology.
But thanks to the work of a technology company and a Missoula nonprofit, 42 fourth-graders at Pine Butte Elementary in Colstrip were immersed in an hour-long intellectual adventure on Thursday, discovering how animals adapt to a winter climate, even though the teacher was 465 miles away in Missoula.
The Montana Natural History Center in Missoula employs a naturalist, Amy Howie, as an Interactive Distance Education Coordinator to conduct virtual science classes for kids in Rapelje, Lincoln, Colstrip and Helmville.
Howie, who worked as a science teacher for many years, said the kids are exposed to a curriculum that they wouldn’t otherwise get.
“This is totally new to them,” she said. “They love it because it’s something new and even though this is new to them, they still know the tech part. So they interact very well.”
The MNHC partnered with Vision Net, a technology company with offices in Great Falls, Missoula and Billings, to set up the video conferencing platform. Essentially, Howie stands in a “green room” complete with light boxes, cameras, microphones, speakers and a giant video screen to chat with the kids in real time about how animals like bobcats and snowshoe hares are able to travel quickly in deep snow.
She interacts with the kids, making sure she knows most of their names, and pauses often to take questions. Other lessons have been on seeds, flowers and animal skulls.
“It does take some practice, because it’s like you’re on camera,” Howie said. “Especially with our green screen, you have to know where you’re pointing. But the kids love it. One of the teachers told me the kids feel like they are right there in the classroom.”
Bruce Wallace, video conferencing systems manager for Vision Net, said the company built a statewide network in 1995 and now over 180 schools use it to take advantage of resources in other cities. Their system is also used by the legal community, medical institutions and private industry. The technology saves time and money because teachers don’t have to spend hours driving to little schools all over the empty expanses of Montana.
“We try to provide the best technology that we can so that it’s as close to being there as it can get,” Wallace said.
Thurston Elfstrom, the executive director of the MNHC, said this year is a pilot program for the classes. The schools get a great deal, because they are only charged about $245 for a once-a-month class for the entire school year, which includes a bin full of materials.
The MNHC is a nonprofit on Hickory Street in Missoula that provides nature education programming for people of all ages. Elfstrom said the program relies on fundraisers and donors. One private donor has been helping with most of the distance learning so far.
“Our goal is to get 20 more classrooms next year,” Howie said. “We need to start training some other people. The great thing is it’s so flexible. You can schedule these schools and you don’t have to travel anywhere.”
Elfstrom said the technology allows the MNHC to extend its reach much farther than they could if they had to teach in person. That’s good news for kids, who are learning about the world around them in new ways.
“Those teachers in rural schools have a general education, so I think a lot of them are looking to add more science, because that’s not their specialty,” Howie said. “Especially in rural schools, they need help with adding science into the curriculum. And now we are aligning our curriculum to the Next Generation Science Standards, so the teachers love that.”