We’ve entered a new era—an era in which going on a field trip no longer requires permission slips, sack lunches, or parent chaperones. Thanks to advances in video conferencing, we’ve entered the era of the virtual field trip, in which students travel hundreds or thousands of miles to explore the world’s wonders—all at the click of a button. And the next stop is Washington state’s Puget Sound.

Over the next couple weeks, students around the world will have an opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with Orca whales and other marine creatures in the Puget Sound ecosystem—all from the comfort of their classrooms. Washington State Parks Foundation is hosting two, free interactive distance learning events to Penrose Point and Lime Kiln Point State Park.

Journey to the Parks: Explore the Salish Sea is a two-part program sponsored by Washington State Parks with partners Harbor Wild Watch, Killer Whale Tales, and Inspired Classroom. The events will be streamed live from an RSS feed with a moderated chat function.

The program is a prime example of interactive distance learning at work, as it allows students in very small communities in rural areas to explore the world beyond their own backyard. A previous three-day virtual field trip reached about 1,200 students in Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana—in addition to students in Canada, Austria and Germany. To ensure a quality experience and interaction between the students and onsite experts, the program directors cap the maximum number of participating classrooms to five.

The first of this year’s two-part program will take place from May 9-11. Washington State Parks Foundation will broadcast live from Penrose State Park with Harbor WildWatch to take a close look at marine invertebrate. Experienced naturalists will introduce students to the plants and animals that inhabit the near shore environment of Puget Sound. They’ll also have the opportunity to see and ask questions about algae and marine invertebrates through live touch-tanks and a virtual beach walk.

Students will learn about the anatomy, feeding habits and the adaptations marine creatures must possess to live in the harsh beach environment. The goal of this interactive program is to bring awareness and respect for the species that share our home and encourage stewardship for our natural resources.

The following week, May 15-17, Washington State Parks Foundation will be at Lime Kiln Point State Park with Killer Whale Tales. Killer Whale enthusiast, researcher and Executive Director of Killer Whale Tales environmental science curriculum, Jeff Hogan, will engage students in Killer Whale identification and research.

Students will learn the four criteria that whale researchers use to identify individual whales and why tracking individual whales (and therefore identification) is an important part of whale research. Students will also participate in a hands-on/minds-on activity in which they’ll experience what it’s like to communicate through sound and sound only. Students will also identify different Killer Whale pods based on recordings of the Puget Sound Killer Whale pods.

Whether or not you’ve participated in a distance learning event in the past, we encourage educators to register for these free events. They’re a great opportunity to experience distance learning while exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest.