Startup brings virtual classroom to students across the state

Sarj Patel, a research professor in molecular pharmacology at the University of Montana, gives a virtual course to Montana high school students in an Inspired Classroom studio in Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)


It was early on a weekday morning when Sarj Patel stepped under the studio lights at Inspired Classroom and placed his back to the green screen hanging behind him.

The research professor in molecular pharmacology spent the next hour giving far-away high-school students a virtual class on brain injuries, as well as the research taking place at the University of Montana to detect and treat them.

“Our research primarily focuses on trying to get a better understanding of the molecular mechanisms that occur following a brain injury,” Patel said. “One of our goals is to eventually develop a blood test that we can use to make a diagnosis.”

Patel is one of 150 UM professors who have enlisted their academic service to “We Are Montana in the Classroom.” The K-12 engagement project launched last year in partnership with Inspired Classroom, based in Missoula, and Vision Net, a company based in Great Falls that provides the dedicated bandwidth and network support.

Jessie Herbert, the STEM education program manager at UM, said the new program has served 6,500 students across Montana this year. At its current pace, We Are Montana in the Classroom will give 10,000 students a taste of higher education by the end of this academic year.

“We Are Montana in the Classroom inspires the next generation to explore higher education at UM and possible career opportunities,” said Herbert. “We have over 150 UM role models who want to be involved and connect with students. This is a wonderful way for our UM faculty to connect with students.”

Courses hosted by Inspired Classroom and instructed by UM professors cover a range of disciplines, from English and foreign languages to Native American studies and the sciences. This month, the instruction will focus on the brain, and the courses have been crafted for the topic.

With students tuning in from various Montana schools, Kallie Moore, collections manager at the UM paleontology center, will share research on dinosaur brains. Rachel Severson, a development psychology professor, will talk about robots and ways children give emotion to inanimate objects.

Patel’s own research at UM has drawn national attention. He and colleague Tom Rau received a second round of funding last year from General Electric and the National Football League to speed up the diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injuries.

Part of the “Head Health Challenge,” the two UM researchers were among six teams selected to participate in the program from a national pool. Speaking to high-school students over Inspired Classroom’s virtual feed, he likened the brain to the yolk of an egg that sloshes about during rapid stops and starts.

Off camera, his descriptions ran deeper to involve the injury’s molecular traces and future diagnosis. Montana ranks second nationally in traumatic brain injuries, which affect an estimated 1.7 million people nationally costing upwards of $77 billion to treat.

“What we’re really moving towards is developing an objective diagnostic measurement,” said Patel. “A great goal would be to look at potential therapies. We can use these measures to improve the outcome because the molecules return to normal in the blood.”

Allison DePuy, co-founder of Inspired Classroom, gets the “We Are Montana Classroom” presentation ready for students.

The technology that makes the virtual classroom possible has come a long ways since Vision Net formed in 1995 to provide private networks to schools.

Headquartered in Great Falls with offices in Missoula and Billings, the company has grown to provide various network and support services, and high-end video conferencing like that employed by Inspired Classroom.

“Because we have a network of K-12 schools and universities, we connected with Inspired Classroom a few years ago,” said Bruce Wallace, who runs the company’s video conferencing. “It made sense to partner with them because our customers wanted what they had to offer. We can provide the technology and they provide the content.”

Inspired classroom, co-founded by Allison DePuy and Kathleen Dent, provides its own suite of material, from distance learning to curriculum development.

Upcoming programs include a collaboration We Are Montana in the Classroom to feature UM’s Native American Studies and a look at Shakespeare’s First Folio. The Montana World Affairs Council is on tap for May, along with a program on whales and water quality in the Puget Sound, offered by the Washington State Parks Foundation.