Montana's outback goes on-line

  • Robert Flaherty directs MSU's Virtual Medical Center

    Florence Williams
 

Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.

A midwife in Wolf Point needs to know the latest practice for treating pregnant women with allergies.

A Native American high school senior in Cut Bank wants to know what a laser is.

A math teacher in Havre wants to earn a master's degree.

A farmer in Ekalaka finds a strange insect on his fallow wheat field and wants to know what it is.

These Montanans could call an extension agent, who would then call a chain of university experts, who might or might not know how to help. Or, in the case of the math teacher, she would have to travel to the nearest degree-offering program, hundreds of miles away. Lately, however, the state's vast distances have shrunk; fast help is now just an 800 phone number away.

Montana residents who have access to a basic computer and modem have abbreviated the distance between them and information. As the third-least-populated state in the nation (only 800,000 residents spread out over 145,000 square miles), Montana needs telecommunications. Thanks to huge grants from the Department of Health and Human Services, NASA, the National Science Foundation, US West and other private and public sources, Montana State University is administering cutting-edge outreach programs on-line.

Bozeman physician Robert Flaherty quit his practice three years ago to found and run the Virtual Medical Center, housed in MSU's health education center. The network enables previously isolated rural health care workers to access medical libraries and databases, consult up-to-date case histories and chat with experts about symptoms or treatments.

Being "wired" to the center has dramatically changed the way nurse midwife Jude Kurokawa does business. She lives and works in Wolf Point, 100 miles from the North Dakota border and 350 miles from the nearest major medical center. When two pregnant women showed up with unusual insect bites last summer, Kurokawa had already been briefed. "I'd seen this (electronic) posting about a rise in aggressive house spiders, and so I knew just how to treat the problem ... it's been an invaluable tool." About founder Flaherty, she says: "He's a visionary, and he has the patience of Job."

Flaherty, a jolly, bearded man, says he had no idea how popular the network would become. Funded in part by the U.S. Public Health Service, Merck Pharmaceuticals and the Digital Equipment Corp., the center receives about 100 "hits' or calls per day, and has served over 2,800 people. It has been so successful that Arkansas, Idaho and Washington have funded 800 numbers so their rural health care workers can dial in. Medics in Canada, Mexico, Sweden and the U.K. also log on via the Internet.

Native American high school students have benefited from the university's creative approach toward electronic extension. In a cooperative partnership, IBM donates a dozen laptop computers for every dozen the university purchases. Every student who successfully completes a free six-week math and science summer session in Bozeman gets to take a laptop home to the reservation.

The students, who are considered bright but troubled, must log on to a special network called AIRONET three times a week in order to introduce the technology to family and friends. On the network, they discuss everything from chaos theory to last night's basketball scores. The idea is to keep them engaged, stimulated and connected to each other, as well as to the broader Internet and World Wide Web, says program director Terry Driscoll.

According to student Averi Loring, a 17-year-old Blackfeet girl from Cut Bank, it works: "I average at least a couple hours a week talking to my friends from (the program). I will continue to benefit from (it) because I was able to see what college life would be like, gain knowledge about science, and experience what it is like to be around people that have high expectations for you."

The Montana State-based AIRONET also serves the seven rural tribal colleges in the state. Students can take courses on-line, work on projects with university professors, scan job listings and access data bases at Montana State's library such as abstracts, journal articles and the card catalog. Library books can then be borrowed through interlibrary loan.

The highest administrative costs for these programs are the 800 numbers, but without them, free on-line communication in most of Montana would not be possible. Internet providers do not serve the state's rural areas, and even if they did, many counties still have party lines.

In fact, the state's limited communication infrastructure is the only thing holding MSU back from bigger and better electronic outreach. A case in point is an innovative "electronic field guide" for controlling pests and weeds, now under development in the university's College of Agriculture. Although the field guide currently provides basic computer users with adequate information on chemicals, crop rotations and planting strategies, it falls short of its potential.

"We'd really like to include graphics of individual insects and weeds on-line," says Will Lanier, an insect diagnostician at Montana State. "The Web is by far the easiest place to put that, but the number of rural ag producers hooked up to the Web is low." In Glasgow, Mont., for example, a farmer is 350 miles away from the nearest Web provider. Continues Lanier: "It's a big logistical challenge. We're just waiting for the infrastructure to catch up."

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Job Announcement: Executive Administrative Assistant (Part-Time) Announcement date: October 27, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: November...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job purpose The Executive Director is a proven leader with demonstrated and sustained experience managing people, budgets, fundraising, and contract compliance who guides a well-established...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a Communications Associate to support the advancement of GYC's mission by working closely with the Communications Coordinator and program staff...
  • MONTANA DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Director of Development (DoD) is responsible for directing all aspects of one or more development functions, which will secure significant...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...