By Michael Jacobs

A butterfly puppet, like a butterfly itself, is never born; it must emerge by stages.

So it was that first-graders at Spalding Drive Charter Elementary School learned a dual lesson about the life cycle of butterflies and the creation of marionettes on a field trip to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Midtown on May 8. An expert at the center, Patty Petrey Dees, spent 50 minutes reviewing the science of egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly and teaching the art of stick, string, construction paper, puppet to reinforce and enhance what the children were learning in their classrooms.

By the end of an hour, blue and green and red and purple paper butterflies were fluttering around the room on strings, flapping their wings under the control of newbie puppeteers who now knew about butterfly eggs that look like miniature watermelons, caterpillars that look like bird droppings and butterflies that know the eyes have it when it comes to camouflage.

The field trip was over, and it was time to leave the center. But instead of climbing aboard yellow buses for a 30-minute ride to Sandy Springs, the first-graders walked out the door and down the hall and were back in their everyday academic world within seconds.

Schools cut back on field trips this year in response to the recession-driven budget crunch. Now Spalding Drive is pioneering a more economical way to fly: using the information superhighway at broadband speeds instead of Ga. 400 at whatever speed Atlanta traffic will allow.

“It’s a very nice alternative, especially with the cost of buses, to be able to take children places,” Spalding Drive Principal Christine Young said. The school must pay $327 for each county bus it takes on a field trip.

The butterfly field trip was the county school system’s first virtual field trip. It took as many as 31 children at a time in two one-hour blocks April 28 and two more May 8. No permission slips, no bag lunches, no lost day of classroom instruction. No need for chaperons either, although the electronic journeys brought six to 10 extra adults along for the ride as educators from around the county came to see an interactive virtual field trip in action.

The tour guides in Room 25 in the north Sandy Springs school were technology specialist Alan David and first-grade teacher Charlene Baker, whom David called one of the school’s most technologically savvy educators. Nearly 16 miles away in a studio but close enough to touch on the high-definition flat-panel screen was Dees — Ms. Patty to the children — the distance learning program director for the center.

The hardware in Room 25, from the monitor and server to the camera and microphone, cost about $6,000, David said, and the school system had to modify its firewall to allow the direct, high-bandwidth connection.

Spalding Drive took the maiden virtual voyage because its charter emphasizes technology.

Young said the school already has interactive Promethean whiteboards and ceiling-mounted LCD projectors in classrooms, so she consulted with parents last year about how to spend her technology budget to take the next step. The answer was virtual classrooms.

The setup has potential financial and educational benefits.

Spalding Drive paid $500 for the four virtual sessions with the Center for Puppetry Arts; that fee covered about 100 first-graders. Young said the cost to take those children to the center, including transportation, would have been $14.27 each, nearly $1,000 more.

Other potential field trips, such as NASA space centers, are free, and the range of the virtual trips reaches far beyond the Atlanta area. David said a surprising number of museums, labs, and other cultural and educational institutions are set up for such field trips.

“I do believe it’s important to take them out of the building,” Young said, so the plan next year is to take each class on one real field trip in the Atlanta area and several virtual field trips that could roam around the world.

David said the school also hopes to partner with far-off schools. The classes could learn about each other, or they could share a field trip to a third location.

Young said the school should be able to cut the cost of the virtual trips by tapping grants that support technology in education.

The field trips are not flawless. One problem is limited bandwidth. While the audio connection was excellent May 8, the streaming video of Ms. Patty and her butterflies occasionally broke up, but the children didn’t seem to mind. The interactive experience of being asked questions and guided through the craft project by the woman on the TV screen seemed to prevent boredom or the distraction of the puppet-making materials.

In the end, just as the monarch butterfly Ms. Patty used as an example spread its wings and emerged, so did a room full of butterfly puppets fly high, lifting the first-graders’ spirits and raising the hopes of the educators around them for a future of efficient field trip fun.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as what this allows us to do,” Young said.