A Jonah's-eye view of the locals

Whales, the inside story

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004

Leslie Antolick, the computer technician at Riverbend Elementary, guided first-graders into the belly of a lifesize inflated humpback whale in the school gym on Friday.

"It's a whale. You'll fit," she told them matter-of-factly.

Second- and third-graders in Lori Hoover's class recently made the 50-foot whale and presented information about whales to younger children using PowerPoint as a basis for their talks. Then the younger children went to the commons or the gym and crouched inside the whale as Hoover talked about it and took questions.

"Do you know what his flippers do?" Hoover asked children crouching in the whale. "His flippers are for steering. What about his tail? His tail is like a motor pushing him through the water."

Lucas Tempel, a third-grader in Hoover's class, confidently presented information to first-graders in Jan Faure's class on Friday afternoon.

"Whales can't smell, so they have to use another sense," he said.

"Does anyone want to learn a big word today? It's called echolocation. OK, when I say something, you say it back to me," he said to demonstrate the use of sound to determine the position of an object.

Tempel pointed out that whales' throats are about the size of an apple, so they have to eat small things.

"It's amazing that the largest animal that lives eats the smallest thing," added Angus Gilbert, a second-grader in Hoover's class.

One of the first-graders asked how the older kids made the whale.

"We used a lot of plastic and a lot of cutting and a lot of measuring and a lot of tape," second-grader Mark Udippa said.

Hoover found the plans on the Internet. The project is the brainstorm of J. Michael Williamson, a Boston-area professor and whale researcher. Students, working in small groups, spent about two hours a day for four days building it in the commons, Antolick said.

The whale is inflated by a fan. One side is black plastic; the other is clear plastic so it's not too dark inside for children. The whale has two flippers and a dorsal fin. The materials were funded by students' sales of ice cream at school.

Joel Gilbert, father of Angus, was there Friday to videotape the event.

The project has been "really exciting," he said, "It's because Ms. Hoover did a whole learning center on whales. With us going out boating, we see a lot of whales, so it's more enjoyable."

Students working in groups of four prepared their own PowerPoint presentations choosing from photos that Hoover had found on the Internet. They had to touch upon the scientific classification of whales, and provide a description, information about their habitat and other interesting facts.

Hoover expected the children to use the bulleted information on the PowerPoint slides merely as a starting point for their talks.

"They practiced in the (computer) lab," Antolick said. "They were pretty nervous. But they got a lot better. ... If you learn something well enough, you can teach it. So they were able to teach the other kids, which is nice."

Students researched whales using books, Hoover said. Students had written reports earlier in the year on other topics.

"I just wanted something different, where they could use the technology, stand in front of an audience presenting. It was more engaging," she said. "And then they had a real audience, which was important. And they wanted to present to their past teachers. And that was a really good motivation."

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.

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