Technology brings students up-close with faraway resources

About three weeks ago, Darlene Bartel, eighth-grade science teacher at Hillsboro Middle School, invited a member of the Mount St. Helens Institute staff to talk to her students about the latest news coming from the country’s most infamous volcano.

Greg de Nevers didn’t happen to be visiting relatives in the area, and he didn’t charge HMS for an airline ticket to make the long trip from Washington State.

But there he was Friday, chatting knowledgeably and affably in Bartel’s classroom, asking and answering questions of students face to face.

Well, sort of.

De Nevers’ face was shining on a large viewing screen at the front of the classroom, and the faces of the students were being beamed back to him through an-in-classroom camera. But the educational give-and-take was as live as if was he standing right in front of them.

Welcome to the world of educational video conferencing.

This was not the first time Bartel and other teachers at HMS had used a live video link via the Internet to connect students with primary resource persons.

But it was the first time de Nevers had used the technology that way-and he’s in the business of educating students about high-tech discoveries.

“To have these possibilities has just opened up,” Bartel said about the technology. “We’re just scratching the surface and taking a few baby steps here.”

Bartel said her class was studying a unit on volcanoes when she mentioned casually to Wiebe Media Center staff member Janet Whisenhunt that she’d love to have a volcanologist talk to her students.

“One day she came back and said, ‘There’s this Mount St. Helens Institute out there,'” Bartel said. “These are more the public-education people, not the ones out on the mountains doing the actual research. But I said, ‘Let’s go for it. That’s as close as we’re going to get here.’

“We started making connections about three weeks ago and setting up the date. I talked to (de Nevers) on the phone a couple of times and (Whisenhunt) talked to him. He even had to locate some equipment because they didn’t have it there.”

The rest is history. Or perhaps the future-albeit an imperfect one as of yet.

The quality of the connection was outstanding, but Bartel discovered during class time that some of the Mount St. Helens photos de Nevers had sent over the Internet with his PowerPoint presentation didn’t make it all the way to Kansas.

But the students didn’t seem to mind.

“A lot of the images we were missing, the students had already seen in their textbook and the video we watched,” Bartel said.

She felt de Nevers’ presentation connected with the students, and that they connected with him, too-although they were shy about asking questions at first.

“He said, ‘I can’t believe they were so quiet,'” Bartel said. “I told him they’re learning this format also. They don’t like a camera pointed at them more than we do.”

Having visited Mount St. Helens herself about three years ago, Bartel she first-hand information to share with her students through photographs and recollections.

But it’s not like getting an immediate, on-site update.

“His job is to be familiar with this mountain,” Bartel said. “He’s more up on what’s happening there than what I am because it’s been three years since I’ve been there.”

Although students weren’t exactly raving about the video conference, she believes it caught and held their attention.

“What we had been hearing, via parents, is that the kids were talking about it coming up,” Bartel said. “That tells me they were pretty excited about it.

“Then I had a chance to ask them in the afternoon, ‘OK, tell me what you thought.’ And they all said, ‘Oh, it was good.'”

Bartel said this kind of resourcing will only increase as technology continues to improve.

“It’s cool,” she said, adding with a smile, “It’s definitely different from the filmstrips we used to watch.

“I feel like we kind of scored a coup with this one.”

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