Creating a "Virtual" Magnet School

by DR. BURTON E. GOODRICH, Associate Director Merrimack Education Center Chelmsford, Mass. A group of educators in the Merrimack Valley of north central Massachusetts is creating a "virtual" magnet school. Called (REMS)^2, an acronym for Regional Electronic Magnet School Re: Math and Science, the project leads and challenges students through exposure to current research problems and methods. (REMS)^2 combines two complimentary but rarely connected strategies -- the focused attention of a magnet school model for talented high school students plus a powerful electronic network and resource system. (REMS)^2 is an educational research project being conducted under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's, Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Education Program. This three-year project is designed to demonstrate, evaluate and disseminate a pilot electronic magnet school model in serving selected high schools throughout Massachusetts. The model effectively utilizes an electronic network to integrate and communicate beyond existing classroom and school boundaries. Further, the project demonstrates that partnerships with university faculty and corporate scientists can effectively support authentic, complex research and the development and application of higher-order learning skills. Broad Reach: University and Corporate Roles (REMS)^2 encompasses 14 comprehensive and vocational high schools and draws on the teaching and research faculties from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Fitchburg State College in the fields of mathematics, science, engineering and technology. Faculty members serve as instructors and guide students' individual and group projects. The project fosters active partnerships with area corporations that provide connections to real research and development. Corporate advisors also help guide students' research projects. (REMS)^2 expands background and interest in math, science, engineering and technology through a stimulating two-week Summer Institute and Junior Year learning and research experiences. The project provides enrichment opportunities that extend beyond regular school experiences and school walls to a regional, and even a global, classroom. Example Activity Mike Phillips, Michelle Oullette, Karen Noyes and April White, four students from three different high schools, have formed a "programming team" that is leading an effort to prepare a multimedia presentation about (REMS)^2. During the Summer Institute, Mike proposed this project idea to fellow students and secured the assistance of several others. Any student is welcome to contribute to this project according to their personal area of interest such as writing, photography, programming or production. As project managers with defined areas of responsibility, Mike, Michelle, Karen and April coordinate the total project effort through telecommunications and face-to-face meetings. The programming team is using sophisticated authoring software to develop their multimedia presentation. Dr. Jesse Heines, a professor from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, exposed them to the software during the Summer Institute. Heines serves as advisor to this team and provides on-going support. For sharing their research and development project with community and school groups, the project team has identified several possibilities including a satellite broadcast to other schools in the state via the Massachusetts Corporation for Educational Telecommunications (MCET). "Virtual" Magnet School Most magnet schools are brick and mortar structures, either day or residential. To participate in such magnet schools, students must usually break relationships and ties with their regular high school peers, programs, curriculum and activities. At the same time, the regular high schools are drained of their academic and leadership skills. This represents a double loss for both student and sending school. (REMS)^2 is different. It is a "virtual" magnet school. While students and teachers do come together for a two-week Summer Institute and selected Junior Year school year activities, the "brick and mortar" that holds (REMS)^2 together is the leadership and linking management provided by the Merrimack Education Center and a powerful telecommunications highway. Students participate in (REMS)^2 as an extension of, not a replacement for, their regular high school experience. Through all (REMS)^2 activities, students are guided and supported by master science, technology and mathematics teachers from their own schools. (REMS)^2 is unique in many ways: Its population -- 56 students and 27 seven master teachers from 14 different high schools -- learn and grow together. Participants meet, study and explore with professors and corporate researchers during a two week Summer Institute that is conducted on the campus of a large university and at numerous corporate research facilities. Students identify and conduct authentic research projects with guided assistance and support from university and corporate advisors throughout their junior year. Academic, career and enrichment opportunities extend student experiences beyond their regular classroom, school curriculum and environment. Key: Electronic Communication Telecommunications is a key component of (REMS)^2. To facilitate this communication between students, teachers, and university and corporate advisors, schools are equipped with at least one computer and modem. All students and teachers are provided an account on EduNet, a statewide education network developed and operated by the Merrimack Education Center. Through EduNet, students and teachers are linked to one another and are also connected to the Internet, a worldwide network of networks. This powerful electronic highway links participants to worldwide resources and communications. To ensure its effectiveness, the Merrimack Education Center provides leadership, technical support and "care and feeding" of the network. A strong element of training is given to students and teachers in the use of e-mail, group conferencing, bulletin boards and research through the Internet. These efforts help to ensure that the electronic highway becomes a vibrant and dynamic medium of communication. Early on students and teachers discover the excitement and effectiveness of instantaneous communications across the Merrimack Valley, the state and the globe. Having a pen pal, which many students experienced in previous school activities, takes on a whole new dimension when it's a "key pal." Unlike postal mail, which can take weeks, electronic messages are sent and received in a matter of seconds. Through this first-hand experience, students are learning the ease and value that telecommunications can add to their research work by providing direct and instantaneous links to fellow students as well as corporate and university advisors. Summer Institute Students participate in a Summer Institute that is expressly designed to expand thinking; whet appetites; and provide hands-on experiences in both academic and research areas of the disciplines of biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, environmental science, health sciences and mathematics. The Summer Institute is conducted on the campus of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and numerous corporate sites. By studying and exploring with professors and corporate engineers and scientists, students experience R&D in various environments. Students also have numerous opportunities to discuss possible college studies and careers. One goal of (REMS)^2 is to sustain interest and to encourage college studies and careers in science and engineering for all students, especially women and minorities. Both the university as well as corporations make special efforts to include women and minority scientists in the program, who serve as role and gender models. Authentic Research Throughout their junior year, students participate in a variety of enrichment activities including a research project. The work that students engage in during the Summer Institute helps them focus on an area of interest, define a reasonable project, and identify university and corporate advisors who are willing to provide them guidance and assistance. Research projects encourage problem solving and logical thinking, and incorporate strategies that can be pursued individually or in teams with their peers from surrounding schools. Advisors provide high-level expert support to help students bridge their academic interests to viable, authentic research. Students are supported and encouraged as they learn, share, synthesize, evaluate and construct. While conducting their research projects, students learn experimental design, laboratory skills, instrumentation, mathematical modeling, strategies for problem solving, and exploratory data collection and analysis. Comprehension and understanding are emphasized in new situations where students do research under the guidance of experts. Because students are online with corporate and university advisors, they are able to use the "electronic highway" as a tool to support their research projects. Important correlations are made between learning and thinking. What students learn is directly influenced by the context in which it occurs. The collaborative work skills, scientific research skills and discipline of mind that students learn by doing their own research is a major goal of (REMS)^2. Indeed, this outcome is more important than the actual research project results that students achieve. Example Activity Three students from Littleton High School -- Laura Kanniard, Erin McGrath and Gretchen Faulkner -- are testing water from Beaver Brook, which flows through a wetlands area of their town, for heavy metals, sodium and phosphates. Guided in their research by science teacher Fred Fitzpatrick, the students are using inexpensive test equipment to identify and monitor these elements and compounds. Additionally, weather and seasonal conditions are being tracked for possible collateral effects. Linkages have been established with their town's water department, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and the Cabot Corporation for assistance with using advanced laboratory equipment and processes for some of their testing. One research result that the students will analyze is a comparison of the data they get with inexpensive equipment to the results that can be provided with sophisticated equipment. Additionally, these students will have opportunities to exhibit and report their research to the local water department and Conservation Commission throughout the school year. Outcomes Now in its second year, this "virtual" school -- which combines the focused attention of a magnet school with support resources and a powerful electronic network -- is demonstrating a viable, active learning model with great potential for all students across America.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.