Technology brings orca to Missoula classroom

Students in Sage Wright’s fourth-grade class at Rattlesnake Elementary School answer questions from the Washington coast during a distance learning project on orca whales. (Photo by Martin Kidston)


A Missoula education company teamed up with the Washington State Parks Foundation on Monday to bring the Horo Straights off the San Juan Islands to a classroom at Rattlesnake Elementary School, where a streaming lesson on orca whales served as the day’s lesson plan.

Students in Sage Wright’s fourth-grade class gathered around the video screen while John Floberg of the parks foundation and Jeff Hogan, executive director of Killer Whale Tales, stood before the deep Pacific waters, urging the students to keep their eyes on the seas in case a whale appeared.

“It’s May and the orca are returning,” said Floberg.

“We’re going to focus on the type of killer whale you’re most likely to see right here at Lime Kiln Point State Park,” Hogan added. “We call them southern resident killer whales.”

Before the stream went live, Wright’s students were already engaged in a lesson on the orca whale, where they learned to distinguish males from females by the size of their dorsal fins.

The animal’s underwater speed and array of teeth dazzled the students, though the live stream proved more entertaining.

“When the southern resident killer whales are full grown, the males average 21-feet long,” said Hogan. “The females are fully grown at age 15 are measure 18-feet long. The difference is huge, amounting to 3,000 pounds.”

The region’s largest whale goes by “Mega,” or L-24, according to Hogan. Newborn calves measure 8-feet long and tip the scale at 350 pounds.

“Raise you’re hand if you weighed 350 pounds when you were born,” Hogan urged. Several students did.

The lesson on whales off the Pacific Coast is just one of many programs brought to Montana students by Inspired Classroom. The Missoula-based company, co-founded by Allison DePuy and Kathleen Dent, provides everything from distance learning to curriculum development.

DePuy, on location in the San Juan Islands, introduced Monday’s stream. The effort was funded by a grant from the Peach Foundation in partnership with Inspired Classroom and VisionNet – a Great Falls company with offices in Missoula and Billings that provides high-end video conferencing and network support.

Evolving technology has opened new doors to educators, said Bruce Wallace, a manager at VisionNet. The firm connected with Inspired Classroom several years ago to expand the education efforts.

“We can provide the technology and they provide the content,” said Wallace. “It used to be you needed a dedicated piece of hardware. On top of that, you needed a dedicated service. In the last five years, the technology has become much more flexible and easier to use.”