Videoconferencing Programs Let Students Explore the World Without Leaving the Classroom

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Students on Long Island “ooh and aah” at a mother sloth grooming her baby. They observe the triumphant and tireless journey of leafcutter ants as they bring tiny pieces of exotic plant life back to their colony. They excitedly view footage, which is taken with night-vision cameras, of ocelots as they stalk their prey without human interference. The young explorers are full of questions, which are answered by research scientists located on Barro Colorado Island, a government-protected tropical rain forest in Panama that is managed by the Smithsonian’s Conservation and Research Center. This captivating experience is made possible through videoconferencing technology, a grant from the KeySpan Foundation, and a vision of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO) to bring the environmentally sensitive rain forest and all of its wonders to New York students located in Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

In January, WMHO partnered with Dr. Jacalyn Willis, director of the Science Education Center at Montclair State University, to host a series of 10 videoconferences aptly titled “The Rainforest Connection Live!” Students in grades 3-5 got the opportunity of a lifetime when they traveled to WMHO’s new Educational and Cultural Center in Stony Brook, N.Y., and “hooked up” with the rain forest using state-of-the-art videoconferencing equipment with ISDN connectivity and a satellite linkup (provided by Verizon) to Barro Colorado Island. During their approximately 45-minute live satellite broadcast, children watched as wild animals roamed in and out of the camera, which prompted interesting questions and dialogue between the students and their host scientist, Dr. Willis. While on their journey, the children learned about the impact that environmental changes have on habitats and ecosystems, as well as how populations of different species vary from year to year. Other topics discussed included how scientists study obscure animals in the wild, symbiotic relationships and predator/prey relationships.

Impacting Students

By the very nature of its interactivity, distance learning makes textbook learning come alive - providing a unique portal for education. It also affords the classroom teacher another setting for presenting curriculum that is aligned to learning standards. This type of interactive technology breaks down the geographic, economic and educational barriers for students. It presents them with the rare opportunity to visit with educators and students from around the globe - enabling them to learn from one another and bringing the world closer together. In addition, research on how videoconferencing can impact students has shown that this tool can heighten motivation, improve communication, expand students’ connection with the outside world, and increase depth of learning.

Although “The Rainforest Connection Live!” program is new to WMHO, videoconferencing technology has been a staple in its educational programs. In 1996, WMHO President Gloria Rocchio viewed a TV commercial that showed a small school on an isolated island in the Chesapeake Bay reaching learning institutions miles away through Bell Atlantic (now part of Verizon) videoconferencing equipment. Embracing the value of distance learning technology, Rocchio saw it as the perfect way to share WMHO’s 88-acre wetlands preserve with students who are unable to visit the site because of distance or expense.

With the help of the New York Institute of Technology, WMHO created its own ISDN-based videoconferencing unit. After working with Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Research Center to adapt WMHO’s existing on-site salt marsh ecology program for videoconferencing lessons, WMHO debuted the first of its distance learning programs, “Electronic Explorations: The Salt Marsh Ecosystem.” The program was an overwhelming success - winning the 2001 Computerworld Honors Laureate award for innovative application of technology.

Since “Electronic Explorations,” WMHO has produced a plethora of exciting videoconferencing programs with various themes. “First Long Islanders: Original Inhabitants,” which launched in April 2002, focuses on educating students about the Native Americans who settled in Stony Brook before the first Europeans set foot on Long Island’s shores. The broadcast sessions take place at the Dr. Erwin J. Ernst Marine Conservation Center, which is next to an American Indian site where an archaeological dig unearthed items dating back to 3000 B.C. that are believed to have belonged to the Setauket or Algonquian Indians. A specially designed online guide with activities, teacher resources, lessons and learning standards is supplied to participating schools prior to the connection. This gives students an in-depth look at what life was like for the Native Americans thousands of years ago, including how they used natural resources to survive.

Launched in December 2002, “Windows Through Time: Journals of American Revolutionary War Spies!” concentrates on America’s first successful spy ring, which was operating in Setauket, N.Y. This literacy-based distance learning program engages students in coding, writing in invisible ink, and uncovering secret messages hidden in masked letters. Students interact by working in groups, completing their own spy design, and presenting this design to the instructor who portrays spy-ring member Anna Smith Strong. Learning kits and a Web guide are also provided to schools that participate in this program.

WMHO introduced “Changing Faces of War: The American Spirit Prevails” in August 2003, just before the launch of “The Rainforest Connection Live!” In an effort to give students a better understanding of war after Sept. 11 - and at a time when many of our men and women were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan - the program explores the different wars of our nation and the history of our nation’s triumphs. The session features an electronic real-time intergenerational dialogue between students and war veterans, which takes place following a classroom viewing of a 45-minute film produced by WMHO. This film highlights U.S. involvement in various wars as it pertains to the tenacity of the American spirit. The film also includes a discussion between a panel of war veterans and students who are members of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization Youth Corps.

Endless Possibilities

Just as Long Island students were given the opportunity to visit Panama, some Panamanian students might get the opportunity to visit Long Island. A live interactive videoconference of “Electronic Explorations: The Salt Marsh Ecosystem” could be scheduled for this fall, which would give Panamanian students an opportunity to trek through the 88-acre Wetlands Preserve in Stony Brook and explore its animal and plant life. During this session, the Panamanian students would have the chance to meet and interact with Long Island students at the preserve as they virtually tour the area together. A sponsorship is currently being sought for this portion of the program.

A vital key to videoconferencing programs, as well as other educational programs and activities, WMHO’s Educational and Cultural Center is home to the ViewStation EX videoconferencing unit, which has capabilities for both ISDN and IP multipoint broadcasts. Thanks to telecommunications technology, people can now travel to new worlds, such as the Panamanian rain forest, from the edge of their seats to experience a range of programs in a variety of areas that include, and are not limited to, performing arts, ecology, history and natural sciences. Distance learning is an all-inclusive program, ensuring an interactive educational experience for all - including people with physical disabilities and those in health care facilities.

The future of distance learning at WMHO is a bright one. For every successful videoconferencing program, there is another successful and rewarding learning experience for students. With distance learning technology, the possibilities regarding the places students can travel and the people they can meet are endless.

- Maria Cornelli,

The Ward Melville

Heritage Organization

For more information on The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and its programs, call (631) 751-2244 or (631) 689-5888, or log on to www.wmho.org.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.

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