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National Park Service Using Electronic Field Trips

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) _ Standing next to Jenny Lake, park ranger Diane McGee tells students about the plants and animals at Grand Teton National Park.

``Very soon, we will have snow falling on the ground,'' she says. ``Winters here are very long. We get up to 200 inches of snow here on the valley floor.''

The children, however, can't feel the crisp air or smell the sagebrush. They are hundreds, possibly thousands, of miles away, watching McGee by Webcast.

Even as experts blame 21st-century technology for declining interest in national parks, the National Park Service has embraced so-called electronic field trips, an increasingly popular teaching tool in schools nationwide.

``The general thinking is that kids are spending more time indoors rather than outdoors,'' said Jackie Skaggs, a Grand Teton spokeswoman. ``There was a concern that we need to reach out and touch children with the mediums that they are comfortable with already.''

The ``Tails from the Tetons'' electronic field trip has seven ``webisodes'' covering topics including wolves, forest fires and how plants and animals adapt to their environment. The final Webcast was a live question-and-answer session with rangers.

Teachers tune in for free, and the National Park Foundation and other nonprofits pick up production costs.

The Grand Teton field trip is one of several produced by Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Students can also visit Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Canyon and Hawaii Volcanoes national parks. About 50,000 students nationwide tune in to each Ball State Webcast, according to the university.

There's even a video game in which students pretend to be a Grand Teton park ranger learning how to find critters such as antelope, moose, elk and black bears.

These days, that's as close to a national park as many youngsters are likely to get. Recreational visits to national parks declined by more than 3 million in 2006 compared with 2005, and by nearly 7 million compared with 1996, according to the National Park Service.

``There are a lot of other things that compete for kids' interest these days,'' said Kathy Kupper, a spokeswoman for the Park Service in Washington, D.C.

Along with video games, theme parks are a major draw. And organized sports make families less likely to take the long vacations needed to get to many national parks.

``Their schedules are more structured, so it's harder to get away,'' Kupper said.

Richard Louv, author of ``Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,'' said getting children interested in nature is important because those who are tend to be less stressed and do better in school.

``We'll see if it actually gets them into the national parks _ if it helps attendance, if it helps get kids outside,'' he said.

Nina Corley has been using the electronic field trips to teach her students at Satori School, a private K-5 school in Galveston, Texas.

``I had students that were asking me, `Where is this at? Because I want to tell my parents that we need to go on vacation there. We need to see it,''' Corley said.

Two of her fifth-graders said they've learned a lot.

``There actually is a difference between black bears and grizzly bears. The grizzly bears have a hump on their back and the black bears don't,'' said Samuel Minton-Marshall, 11.

Ellie Cherryhomes, also 11, said national parks are good because they protect wildlife, and she would like to visit one someday.

``Just all the different parks, it's cool to see the different habitats in the U.S. instead of just the ones you live at,'' Cherryhomes said.
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