FLARE K-12 Goes Virtual

FLARE K-12 Goes Virtual

Deep Dive into FLBS: The Tale of the Humbled Grizzly

Written from the perspective of FLBS marketing & communications manager Ian Withrow, each "Deep Dive into FLBS" column features entirely original content and provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Bio Station science, researchers, partners and programs. Stay tuned for future installments in upcoming editions of the Bigfork Eagle.

Note: The following account details events that took place in the office of FLBS marketing & communications manager Ian Withrow on February 6, 2023.

I haven’t participated in an intellectual challenge of this magnitude in decades. Not since college (and maybe not even then) when my comprehension, critical thinking, and clarity of response were far better conditioned for spontaneous, pop quiz-like assessment. Those skills are all but gone, now. They’ve been eroded by time and aging and whatever happens to a human brain that’s trying to parent a two-year-old child.

These days, the sharpest arrows in my intellectual quiver are limited to dad jokes, uninformed weather predictions, and any pop culture reference that predates 2003—and not a single one of those avenues of genius can help me here.

About an hour ago, FLBS educator Stephanie Hummel stopped by my office to tell me about an exciting new opportunity for our Flathead Aquatic Research Education (FLARE) K-12 Program, which is back to its pre-pandemic form.

Funded entirely through philanthropic and grant support, FLBS educators and the FLARE K-12 Program typically engage thousands of K-12 students and educators each year with hands-on science education through in-person field trips, classroom visits, and collaborations with after school programs like Bigfork ACES and local Boys & Girls Clubs. The program works in conjunction with FLBS scientists to create and deliver inquiry-based K-12 curricula and investigations of aquatic ecosystems, organisms, invasive species, and water pollution.

Additionally, FLARE K-12 partners with organizations and agencies including the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), Flathead Lakers, Whitefish Lake Institute, Bigfork Art & Cultural Center, Montana State Parks, Flathead Community of Resource Educators, and more to host and participate in youth education outreach events such as the CSKT Mussel Walks, the Flathead County Science Fair, and the Flathead Watershed Through The Seasons K-12 teacher training workshop.

The FLARE K-12 Program aims to give every Montana child the chance to gain first-hand experience researching, monitoring, and exploring the world-renowned Flathead Watershed at least once in their K-12 career. But there are many classrooms with an interest in learning more about our incredible Flathead Watershed that, mainly due to geographic and other logistical issues, aren’t able to participate in the traditional in-person FLARE K-12 activities.

To circumvent some of barriers preventing students and teachers from engaging the FLARE K-12 Program, Bio Station educators have been hard at work developing and utilizing innovative and interactive virtual learning opportunities. During the pandemic, their efforts resulted in the creation of an online aquatic invasive species curriculum that was free and available for teachers to use to integrate into their own lesson plans.

Most recently, and the reason for Stephanie Hummel’s visit to my office a short while ago, FLARE K-12 joined forces with an organization called Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants to create and deliver a live, interactive virtual field trip experience for K-12 students.

Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants is an organization that brings educators and experts on the front lines of science, exploration, conservation, and adventure into K-12 classrooms through live virtual guest speakers and field trips. Launched in 2015, Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants has hosted over 3,500 live events, connecting over a million students with scientists and explorers in nearly 100 countries. These events are free, and the organization is committed to ensuring that they continue to be free for classrooms everywhere.

FLARE’s first virtual field trip would engage second grade classrooms, Stephanie told me, and she had to go get ready because the first session was about to begin. I told her I thought this was an incredible development, and asked her to send me the link so I could sit in on the experience.

Moments later, having successfully clicked on the link, the Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants YouTube page fills my computer screen. After a brief waiting period, a vibrant introduction filled with high energy music ensues, and the interactive live education session begins.


During an Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants virtual field trip event, FLBS educator walks viewers through a video of FLBS director Jim Elser collecting samples on Flathead Lake.


The format of the program is a cross between a Zoom meeting and a television show. Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants host Joe Grabowski welcomes all of the classrooms that have logged onto the event, which includes Ms. Sinclair’s second graders from Kalispell. He then hands the show over to Stephanie, who provides an overview of the Bio Station and the Flathead Watershed via an online camera and virtual presentation.

The theme of this virtual field trip is “Microorganism Exploration in Montana,” and once the overview is complete, Stephanie engages participating classrooms with a live look into the lens of an FLBS microscope. Students and teachers are able to see some of Flathead Lake’s tiniest residents in real time—including the iconic zooplankton Daphnia—as Stephanie explains the anatomy of these organisms.

Viewers are also shown recorded videos of FLBS monitoring and sampling methodologies, and provided important information detailing why microorganisms are so important to the health and sustainability of Flathead ecosystems. There is also a question-and-answer period, during which students can interact with Stephanie directly to learn more about the Bio Station and our work in the Flathead Watershed.

We’re not even at the halfway point, and already the significance of this virtual experience is undeniable. While not quite as immersive as an in-person field trip, through this partnership Stephanie is able to provide ten different classrooms with the next best thing—an audio-visual and interactive experience that allows students and teachers to see science happening in real-time.

It’s clear that by continuing to develop and utilize interactive virtual learning experiences, FLARE K-12 will be able to efficiently and effectively expand the accessibility of FLBS science, research, and monitoring for K-12 classrooms in Montana and beyond.


The Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants FLBS virtual field trip culminated in an interactive trivia session that allowed participating classrooms to reflect on what they learned during the event.


But all that feel-good stuff is for another time, because only a few minutes ago, host Joe Grabowski announced that a trivia session is about to begin. The trivia will be based on Stephanie’s presentation, and as I write this, the classrooms in attendance are submitting team names to the interactive virtual trivia board: Team BlueMouse, Team KnowingNewt, Team AgentFalcon, and so on.

Well, if these kids want to get a first-hand look at some elite intellectual competition, then they’re in luck. I roll up my sleeves, and while I’m not able to officially enter the trivia session, I take out a piece of paper and jot down my own team name in ink for posterity’s sake.

I call myself Team HumbledGrizzly—as in this Montana Grizzly is about to humble these young whippersnappers.

On one side of my desk is a tablet filled with copious notes. On the other, a freshly poured packet of Emergen-C fizzes in a glass of water. Like a wily baseball pitcher on the brink of a no-hitter in the twilight of a hall-of-fame career, I wipe the sweat from my brow and take a deep breath. Looks like these kids are about to find out how much juice my ol’ cerebral fastball has left.

Final Score Update:

Tied for 1st Place: Team AdorableDuck, Team HonestPanther, Team CaringLizard, Team DiligentGecko, Team QuickEmu, Team DynamicLizard, Team AgentFalcon, Team KnowingNewt, Team BlueMouse.

Last Place Finish: Team HumbledGrizzly