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Glacier National Park virtual field trips hope to inspire connection with nature

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | February 11, 2024 12:00 AM

Glacier National Park Lead Education Technician Lindsay Brandt is animated on screen. Using exaggerated movements in front of many colorful, interesting photos she creates what feels like watching a live children’s television show for the park’s distance learning program. 

On a quiet January morning, Brandt appears before a green screen showing off the park virtually to a classroom at Hot Spring Elementary, but the program also reaches students as far away as New Jersey. 

Brandt said the park’s distance learning program might not only inspire someone to come visit the park one day, but also to seek out nature wherever they are located. 

For it to not feel like a lecture, Brandt said the park service has honed in on how to make the virtual experience as interactive as possible.

“We kind of imagine that we're going on a hike, which works really well for younger kids, but bringing in different discussions and ways of engaging them — talking with your partner or raising a hand (to answer questions),” Brandt said. 

From climbing over logs in Glacier’s dense forests to trudging up a mountain, Brandt tells her students to prepare for different parts of the hike much like she would in real life. Immersing the class in the habitats of the park might make them wonder what kinds of animals live there, a question that she posed to the students multiple times during the field trip. 

It’s one of the many ways rangers keep students engaged.

Though it seems like the program that would have been born during the pandemic, Glacier Parks staff started trying to figure out how to host virtual field trips in 2016. 

In 2021, they hosted a trip with a class from every state. 

Before her time in Montana, Brandt worked at other national parks that prioritized virtual learning programs, like Grand Canyon National Park. She said staff at Glacier collaborated with rangers there to figure out what kind of technology to use, where the equipment would be placed in the education center and only met with a couple of schools at a time to nail down how to best present these field trips over video calls. 

“And of course during Covid, all these technologies and Zoom became much more common, so it became even easier to connect with students. I remember at Grand Canyon in 2019, we were using Skype or IP address calling … And the teachers had to figure out the technology. Now it's like, ‘Hey, guys, send us a link to whatever platform you want to use.’ It's a lot easier now,” Brandt said. 

Winter Seasonal Education Technician Darcy Lilla said it came in handy when connecting with local schools during the pandemic when even students at West Glacier Elementary just outside the park couldn’t visit the park like they normally would. 

“Although they're literally right across the river, we couldn't go into their classroom during Covid. So we recorded different kinds of lessons and put together packets for the teachers that brought us into the classroom without actually being there,” Lilla said. 

DURING A virtual geology program, Brandt spoke about how to “make rocks.” 

“A photo of a kitchen goes up behind me and we’re like, OK, ‘What are the ingredients for a sedimentary rock? So we get some sediment and put it in a bowl, then we add some water and mix them together.’ And I ask ‘Is that a rock?’ And everyone goes ‘No!’ So, it’s like ‘Oh my gosh, OK, we need pressure, I’m pretty strong so maybe I can put some pressure on it.’ So that’s fun,” Brandt said. 

Lilla said movement is important too, programs for the younger students ask them to throw up different arm poses when asked certain questions, many of which are words from American Sign Language. 

“We use a little bit of ASL, so incorporating motions and physical movement is really great, too. The symbols we use for different things, not all of them, but some of them are ASL.”

BRANDT RECALLED a time when she met a student out in the field that she saw on a distance learning program. When she was employed by the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon’s Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, cell service allowed for another ranger to venture into the tide pools and show what was happening there in real time to students over Zoom. 

“There was a student that had been on a program that recognized me in the tide pools, and she came and visited with her family. That was so cool to just have that experience, she came to the tide pools and she knew how to explore responsibly because of what we talked about. And she was there because she'd been on this distance learning program with her class,” Brandt said. 

The hope is that despite the program being virtual, it will educate students to take care of the environment that surrounds them and to get outside. 

“That’s what I want, I want you to think about these places near you and to think about how to be a better steward of nature and the environment — wherever that is,” Brandt said. 

The distance learning program is funded by the Glacier National Park Conservancy. In-person field trips remain a high priority for Glacier’s rangers during the winter months, but Brandt said it’s nice to have a mix of both programs. 

“Last year, we didn't do as many, as we were getting back into field trips. And so this year, it's been really fun to get to do both field trips and distance learning” Brandt said. 

To learn more about distance learning programs in Glacier National Park, visit their website at www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/learning/learning.htm. 


Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached at 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.


    Glacier National Park ranger Lindsay Brandt leads a virtual field trip via Zoom at the Apgar Education Center on Tuesday, Jan. 30. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)
 Casey Kreider 
 
 


    Glacier National Park ranger Joseph Carlson leads a puppet show during an elementary school field trip at the Apgar Education Center on Tuesday, Jan. 30. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)
 Casey Kreider 
 
 


    Glacier National Park Lead Education Technician Lindsay Brandt wraps up her virtual Habitat Adventure program with a classroom from Hot Springs Elementary. (Taylor Inman/Daily Inter Lake)
 
 


    Glacier National Park Lead Education Technician Lindsay Brandt asks a classroom at Hot Springs Elementary if they can identify the animal shown behind her during their virtual Habitat Adventure program. (Taylor Inman/Daily Inter Lake)
 
 


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