ThinkQuest Contest Motivates Youngsters To Collaborate on Web-Based Projects

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Shortly after its formation in 1990,Advanced Network & Services -- with the help of IBM, MCI, Merit,Northern Telecom and many others -- built the largest and fastestpart of the Internet. Between 1990 and 1995, the firm provided theNSFnet Backbone Service, interconnecting research and educationregional networks in the United States. Its network operated at 45Mbps and spanned 12,000 miles.

In February 1995, Advanced Network& Services sold substantially all of its assets and operations toAmerica Online. With the proceeds of that sale, the firm initiatedseveral programs in support of education and science. Chief amongthem is ThinkQuest, which invites students to create imaginative Webpages to be used as educational tools by students and teachers aroundthe world.

The 1997 competition attracted morethan 1,400 teams representing 40 countries, including Australia,Georgia, Poland, Singapore and Taiwan. A team consisting of studentsfrom the Netherlands, India and U.S. won the Best of Contest awardfor "Where Earth Meets Sky: The Himalayas," a geographical andcultural journey through one of nature's most magnificent andmysterious wonders. Other teams picked up awards in the followingcategories: Arts and Literature, Interdisciplinary, Science andMathematics, Social Sciences, and Sports and Health (see Table Onefor a complete list of winners).

This brief article describes theThinkQuest program through the experience of one team at H.D. PerryMiddle School in Miramar, Fla. Judy Shasek is a Resource Room teacherat H.D. Perry, located in Broward County between Miami and FortLauderdale. Due to economic hardships, many students there lackcomputers at home, and Shasek searched for a way to expand theirhorizons.

With a grant from AT&T for freeInternet access, Shasek set up a PC in her office and introducedstudents to ThinkQuest. "From day one when I set up a connection tothe Internet in my office, we had one kid who would just not leaveduring lunch hour." That student, who also possessed an ability tomentor other kids, became the core of a larger group that literallytaught all the other students how to deal with the intricacies of theWeb.

Ironically, many of the students whocame in to work on the ThinkQuest entry were the same ones previouslylabeled "at-risk" by counselors. "The chatty skills that get thesekids in trouble in a traditional classroom were at a premium when westarted with collaborative projects," Shasek says. Noticing that anumber of students shared an interest in juggling, she tried torelate this hobby to practical mathematical skills.

"You can do mathematical problems byrote. But if you really want to understand math, you have to takerisks,"observes Shasek. "You also have to practice, practice,practice, and you may get a few things wrong along the way ... justlike juggling." Shasek convinced the "Perry School Jugglers" tocreate a Web site on the history and techniques of thatcraft.

Students responded by conductingin-depth research on and off the Internet, analyzing data andlearning to use spreadsheets. Within a week, twelve seventh gradestudents taught 160 second graders how to juggle, then made thetransition to math lessons. "All of a sudden, these students wereacting like leaders - in control and managing multiple projects,"recalls Shasek.

A Family Night focusing onThinkQuest yielded an unprecedented 95% parent attendance. Hearingabout the students' ambition, several people in the community hiredthe Jugglers to build Web sites for their businesses. Although theJugglers did not capture a prize at the ThinkQuest awards ceremony,students walked away with an appreciation for how human collaborationand powerful technology can make a positive impact on younglives.

Neal Howard Brodsky is a writerand producer for Advanced Network and Services, Inc., in Armonk,N.Y., which sponsors the ThinkQuest contest. E-mail:brodsky@advanced.org

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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