It was two minutes before noon in Sarah Dolan's sixth-grade social studies class as 27 students began to buzz and scrambled to sit atop their desks in full view of a small videoconferencing camera at the front of the room.

Soon it was beaming their images via Internet from Oak Point Intermediate School in Eden Prairie to a basement studio in the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. There, history center program assistant Jack Matheson, impersonating 19th century geographer Joseph Nicollet, stood in front of an interactive white board, much as a television meteorologist appears before weather maps.

Dressed in historic garb and speaking with a French accent, "Nicollet" greeted students precisely at noon with a hearty "Bonjour."

He was using a relatively new teaching tool called interactive videoconferencing, which allowed two-way visual and audio communication between the students and Nicollet as dozens of maps, photographs and drawings flashed next to him on a screen. Kids could also see themselves in a small insert on the big screen as they interacted with Nicollet.

About 40 schools in 22 counties have linked to the History Center for videoconferencing since last April. In the metro area, schools in Minneapolis, Eden Prairie, Plymouth, Inver Grove Heights, Woodbury and Robbinsdale have participated.

The center received nearly $500,000 from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to build a videoconferencing studio and develop programs. The fund is part of the 2008 Legacy Amendment that provides sales tax money for outdoors and cultural projects.

So far, the videoconferencing has focused on fourth- through sixth-graders, providing lessons on Nicollet, pioneer schoolteacher Harriet Bishop and an early 1900s logging camp in northern Minnesota. Soon to come are a program featuring three Minnesota inventors and the scientific methods they used, and a lesson called "All About Minnesota" that can also be used with younger students.

Not a field trip

"It has really expanded our reach beyond just our physical building," said Mary Mannes, school programs manager for the History Center.

Interactive videoconferencing is not like a field trip to the St. Paul center, she said, where school groups spend their time touring exhibits. Instead, Mannes said, it's a one-hour lesson that brings resources and expertise into student's regular classroom curriculum.

Each hour costs the school $75. Many schools already are wired with the necessary Internet connections and projectors, said Oak Point instructional technology coach Kim Christensen, but districts may need to borrow or buy the specialized cameras, which cost about $3,000.

A number of other institutions also offer two-way videoconferencing for schools, including NASA, the National Park Service and the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.

Students keep moving

"Nicollet" took students on an expedition to map the upper reaches of the Mississippi River in 1836. At various times he asked for volunteers to come to the front of the room: At one point they represented the British, French, Ojibwe and Dakota who earlier claimed the land; at another point they represented stars in the constellation he used to find the North Star and to draw his maps.

At other times he directed students to go through the motions of paddling their canoes, portaging them on their backs, and harvesting wild rice by knocking it with sticks into a canoe, stirring and parching it in a pot, stomping on it to separate the grains, and throwing it in the air to remove the chaff. Afterward, students gave the class a thumbs-up.

Madhura Pradhan said she especially liked the interactive parts "where you get called up and you can do the movements of how they did it back in the olden days."

Jennifer Machl enjoyed learning more about the Ojibwe and the Dakota, and what early explorers needed to carry on their expeditions. "It was fun to see what he took along like the metal and the rock to make fire with," she said.

Pate Hansen was also impressed with all the information. "The items that they brought on the trip and how much weight they could carry, I thought that was cool," he said.

For Christian Martin, it was far better than reading about Nicollet in a textbook. "There was a live person and you actually get to talk to them, so it's more fun," he said.

Learning by storytelling

"Nicollet" discussed how tribes were the first owners of the land and helped early explorers. He also talked about cartography, biology, astronomy and geology. He asked them at one point to add and subtract to figure out how much weight the expedition could carry. And he mentioned other early Minnesota settlers and leaders who helped him financially, and whom he honored as he named lakes or rivers.

Christensen said the History Center's approach seems to work.

"They're integrating math and science and social studies and geography, and they're doing all this through a story," she said. "We know that the story is what really impacts the kids and that the visuals are what they're going to remember."

Dolan, the teacher, said the students saw one earlier program with Harriet Bishop, and continue to talk about things they remember. When the day came for Joseph Nicollet's hour, she said, they were excited, but a few seemed confused about whether they would be doing social studies, or writing, or something else.

Dolan had a simple response: "We're just learning."

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388