The world comes to Joplin

To ensure interactivity, it is essential that students do the pre-activity and have all materials prior to the videoconference.

Southwest Missouri district uses MOREnet connectivity for videoconference field trips

The NASA engineer at the Johnson Space Center holds up a huge orange ball so the third-graders can see.

“If this ball represents the size of our Sun,” she asks, “what size ball would I need to represent the size of our largest planet, Jupiter?”

The teacher gently encourages her students to speak up. One young man raises his hand.

“Yes, Brad?” the teacher asks.

“A basketball?”

“That’s a really good guess,” the engineer says, “but I’d actually need a smaller ball. Can anyone guess?”

A young girl raises her hand. “A tennis­ ball?”

“Yes!” the NASA engineer says, and holds up a tennis ball. “Very good. That’s exactly right. If this big ball is supposed to be the size of the sun, you’d need a tennis or baseball to show the size of Jupiter.”

While this scenario might seem typical for a field trip for students from Houston, Texas, or a neighboring school district, it is actually occurring between a NASA engineer at Houston’s Johnson Space Center and students hundreds of miles away, sitting at their desks in a classroom in Joplin, Mo., interacting with the presenter using videoconferencing technology.

The Joplin school district has been performing Videoconference Field Trips (VFTs) for over two years, and their popularity­ continues to grow, says Director of Technology Services Angela Neria.

According to Neria, the origin of VFTs in Joplin schools began with the Joplin Schools Foundation and her prede­cessor, Ross Lauck, who saw how some Kansas schools used similar technology. Originally viewed as an in-district resource to share information and instruction between school buildings and occasionally colleges and universities, the program quickly grew more ambitious.

“I researched distance learning for my Ed.S.,” Neria says, “so when I came into the district, the idea sparked to connect with some unique content providers such as NASA and the Albany Museum of Art.” The Joplin Schools Foundation provided the videoconferencing equipment, and through MOREnet connectivity, the Joplin­ schools’ experiment in video­conferencing field trips was off and running­.

“Through MOREnet we are able to offer Internet connections in every classroom, all building labs, all building­ libraries and all office areas. The VFT equipment that we have is mobile, allowing­ us to move it to any of these locations­, if needed.”

“Joplin is a wonderful southwest Missouri town with a fair mixture of socio­economic statuses,” says Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Dr. Carolyn Vandeven, “but many of our kids may never get to visit famous museums­, NASA or the San Diego Zoo. VFTs give them the opportunity to see things without ever leaving Joplin.”

Through approximately 75 VFTs a year, students in third grade through high school are able to explore science, math and health-related topics­. During­ the past year third-graders visited NASA to speak with engineers about astronomy, fifth-graders visited HealthSpace Cleveland to talk to museum curators about the human body, and high school students visited Aquatic Research Institute to learn about physics.

And while a virtual trip to NASA or HealthSpace Cleveland can be an enriching­ experience in and of itself, Joplin educators also make sure that the trips relate to coursework.

According to Neria, district Teaching­ Specialists (coordinators of a subject area) search through and review content provider­ profiles provided by the Depart­ment of Technology Services, looking for subjects that directly relate to the curriculum and MAP testing areas. After reviewing the material, they work with teachers to ensure that the objectives are covered. “If all teachers agree on the field trip,” Neria says, “they contact me and have our team set up their suggested dates with the content provider.”

“By relating the VFT to objectives in our curriculum,” Dr. Vandeven says, “we are teaching the objective or reinforcing it through an exciting medium. VFTs make learning come alive for our students­.”

The introduction of VFTs has not been without challenges, Neria says. “During our first pilot of the program several summers ago, the biggest challenge was to remind teachers and students­ that they must come prepared and knowledgeable about the subject,” she says. “We found that some teachers and students thought that they would sit and listen. A VFT is not at all that way. The content providers expect and demand­ interaction with the students.”

Videoconferencing requires a lot of bandwidth. Through MOREnet’s K-12 Technology Network Program (K-12 TNP) additional bandwidth is available at no additional cost to participating districts, up to 20 MB depending on current use and needs.

“We could not support this form of videoconferencing without MOREnet’s reliable service and bandwidth,” Neria says. “Because of the MOREnet relationship we have been able to expand this program to not only IP-based content providers but also to those who use ISDN. Because we do not have an ISDN line, we connect to MOREnet’s MCU and then on to the content provider. MOREnet simply bills us the ISDN charges.”

How have students and teachers reacted to VFTs? “It has been very positive overall,” Neria says. “We survey each teacher after each videoconference, as does the content provider. Students look forward to the trips and interacting live with experts in their respective fields.”

shoryl | Wednesday, September 1, 2004 | |


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