Collaborative Technologies

STEM: Videoconferencing Connects Students with NASA

Students from three Montana schools recently got the chance to interact with NASA astronauts and scientists located thousands of miles away ... and didn't even have to leave their home state to do it. The event took place in May and found the students using videoconferencing technology not only to communicate with the astronauts and scientists, but also to watch the space shuttle launch.

Kathie Metrione, the gifted coordinator at 300-student Belt High School in Belt, MT, was among the teachers selected to participate. "My administrator called me into the office and told me that I have five minutes to decide whether or not we wanted our students to get involved," said Metrione. "I said, 'let's go for it.'"

Presenting the opportunity was Rob Ferris, CEO at Great Falls, MT-based Vision Net, whose technology products and services include broadband network transport, worldwide video conferencing, Internet services, and network and equipment monitoring services.

Incorporated in 1995, Vision Net is wholly owned by nine established telephone companies. In 2005, the firm merged with Montana Advanced Information Networks (MAIN) to form a combined company that delivers technical professional services.

Outside of the education field, the company enabled troops in Iraq to see their babies being born, visit one last time with dying loved ones, and watch their children get married. Recently, a Malta man who was hospitalized in a Utah burn unit was able to see his twin daughters graduate from high school using Vision Net's streaming video capabilities.

To bring NASA's Kennedy Space Center to students from Belt High School, The Darby School and East Middle School, Vision Net provided a videoconferencing bridge that allowed the company to connect multiple locations in multiple states for audio and video broadcast using digital, broadband, and satellite technology. The Montana students gathered at Vision Net's headquarters to get the up-close look at the launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on its final mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Metrione, who selected 17 students to attend the event, said the children prepared questions in advance to ask the astronauts and scientists. Using the live satellite feed, the moderator would ask specific schools to present those queries. "My kids got their chance to ask questions about the Hubble spacecraft, astronauts, and other interesting things," she said.

Upon returning to Belt School those students attending the event shared the experience with their classmates. The news coverage of the event--complete with footage of the school's students--was particularly popular, as was discussion about the many and varied careers available in scientific fields.

"A couple of students said they didn't realize just how many job opportunities there were in science, outside of just being a scientist," said Metrione, who added that she was enthused by the students' overall positive feedback from the event. "The kids were just ecstatic over it. During the ride back home, one student said, 'This is probably the most fun I've had all school year.'"

Ferris said all participating schools were given access to an online video in advance to serve as "homework" for the teachers and students that were going to attend. "We put homework assignments on the video to make sure that the students are prepared for the Q&A portion of the event ahead of time," said Ferris.

On the day of the event, those students took part in three different interactive Q&A sessions (to avoid overwhelming the astronauts and scientists) and then stayed on to watch the live launch of the space shuttle. And while the "wow" factor of using technology to be that close to real astronauts was certainly high, Ferris said the project's ultimate mission is to get kids interested in science and technical careers.

"Kids can learn what it's really like to be up in space or to have a career as a Lockheed Martin scientist," said Ferris. "It gives them a whole new appreciation for a field that they wouldn't otherwise be so closely exposed to."

Ferris said the event was pulled off without a hitch, although Mother Nature tried to intervene at one point. "It was pretty windy for the folks down there at Kennedy Space Center, but for the most part we had good audio and good connections," said Ferris. "We tested all of the student questions prior to broadcasting them, and from a technological standpoint the videoconferencing went very well."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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