Universal Access to Science Study via Internet


The Internet is transforming science study by removing the need for students to be at the same place as their laboratories, their mentors or their collaborators. Data can be acquired from remote sites, teachers can advise from anywhere, and peers can communicate with each other from multiple locations around the world. New opportunities for decentralized study go beyond telecommuting, which implies merely reaching one location from another. Internet technology not only provides new links between home-based and school-based activities but, it redefines what we mean by a "school."

Changes in education today parallel what has been going on for some time among scientists. For many years, researchers at multiple sites have been able to share data over the Internet and collaborate as they analyze, review and discuss observations. Today, students are adopting this type of exploration and learning. For example, images from space, land-based telescopes or powerful microscopes at university and industrial laboratories can be studied by students at home or in school.

Since early in 1995, at Stevens Institute of Technology, we have been promoting the use of the Internet in science education. Our emphasis is on utilizing it in ways that are unique and compelling. We concentrate on materials for science study that cannot be delivered via software or CD-ROM because of their real-time or collaborative nature.

These are rapidly changing times with limited resources for curriculum development and teacher training. Attention is best given to interesting, intellectually significant educational opportunities that are not likely to reach learners through any mechanism other than the Internet. Only then can educators justify expenditures of time and money for this new technology.

Our activities are funded by the National Science Foundation in a program known as the New Jersey Networking Infrastructure in Education (NJNIE) project. This is a national demonstration project to promote improved science education in 500 K-12 schools in New Jersey through applications of the Internet.

The activities are pursued in collaboration with and in support of another NSF program, the New Jersey Statewide Systemic Initiative (NJSSI), which is advancing science education reform throughout the state. In addition to working with NJSSI schools, the Internet project provides planning advice and curriculum training for schools from the state's 30 most disadvantaged school districts.

We focus our Internet activities on analysis of data. In particular, we emphasize quantitative data that is emerging from fresh sources. We seek to increase mathematical skills of students as they encounter the beauty and regularity of science. Fundamental to an appreciation of science is the mathematically precise order, regularity and predictability that is manifest in natural phenomena.

Our emphasis is on science education for pre-high school science students. This is an arena of American education that has included a great deal of qualitative study and too much rote learning. Compounding the problems of K-8 science study is the simple fact that most teachers at that level have had limited science education themselves.

Since only about 20% of America's high school graduates have taken a course in physics (and that group includes pre- science, pre-engineering and pre-medical students), the likelihood that an elementary school teacher has taken a high school physics course is quite small. The possibility that they have gone on to a physics course in college is even lower. Hence, understanding of the physical aspects of nature and their quantitative relationships are not usually part of the background of K-8 school teachers.

Another reason for emphasizing science study that includes data is that many schools, particularly in inner cities, lack adequate laboratory facilities. By bringing interesting, significant and timely information into the learning experience of inner-city students, technology is providing cost-effective enrichment that would not be possible through other strategies.

Because most K-8 teachers are not science specialists, Internet-based science resources need to be elaborated to make topics accessible to a broad community of teachers. Many topics can be structured such that they can be pursued directly by students. This is a great potential boon to home schooling programs and it also makes it possible for students who attend schools to engage in activities outside of class that are more interesting, original and engaging than traditional "homework."

Our data-centered approach deals with information that is available to student learners through three different sources:

  • Data developed by other students as part of collaborative projects;
  • Data available from public domain databases such as those created by NASA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Geological Survey, etc.; and
  • Data that comes directly from research laboratories.

We have been actively promoting each of these sources and, in what follows, provide two examples from each category. All six of these science educational activities that can be pursued via the use of the Internet are original materials that were developed as part of our New Jersey Networking Infrastructure in Education (NJNIE) project. Readers can find all of the examples discussed here on our NJNIE Web site at: http://k12science.stevens-tech.edu/ or http://njnie.dl.stevens-tech.edu/


Many types of collaborative projects are possible by using the Internet. It is sometimes hard for teachers to focus on applications that have significance beyond casual social relations. In many cases, students will exchange information with students at other schools as part of a "pen-pal" exchange. There is a great deal of novelty and excitement in these exchanges since students using the World Wide Web can not only trade written messages but images and voice recordings as well.

We encourage teachers and students to utilize this technology for science education in which the information obtained plays a unique and important role. In evaluating this use of the technology we ask teachers to use the criteria of whether the information obtained from the remote site has content that they could not obtain locally or if the remote site has physical conditions of particular interest. Depending on the issues being studied, latitude, altitude, air quality, ecosystem, etc. are all variables that can underpin useful collaborations.

Example 1: Pond Water

One collaboration that can make good use of Internet technology involves study of pond water. This has been a classic activity for elementary school science students for many years. Students gather samples from a local pond and examine the organisms they find with microscopes. They can also examine the inflow and outflow of the pond, as well as the oxygen content and chemical characteristics of the water. All of these measurements and observations help students understand their local ecology.

Using the Internet, students share their observations with peers living in quite different parts of the world. Students are fascinated to discover the number of similarities that exist. Finding the same microorganisms at locations separated by almost 10,000 miles is astonishing to students who trade information between New Jersey and Japan. Differences are found as students who live in regions with different levels of acid rain or at different altitudes, for example, compare data.

In the context of data comparisons, "pen-pal" exchanges take place and students learn about the cultures and daily life of various societies. We encourage and nurture these exchanges, but our first objective is to engage students in interesting and informative science study.

The overall impact of this type of curriculum pursuit is to not only add to the body of knowledge of students, and to involve them in active independent study, but to do so in a context that broadens their horizons and which motivates greater interest in and involvement with the experience of learning.

Example 2: Temperature

In this study, conducted in March 1996, early elementary students from around the world looked at how average daily temperature was affected by a location's proximity to the equator. Students from over 150 schools worldwide participated in this project, honing their skills of measurement, conversion of units, latitude and longitude, and graphing.

This three-week project began with an introductory week where participating schools sent a class e-mail to all other participants, stating the school's longitude and latitude as well as some information about the students, their culture and their daily activities. Upon receiving e-mail in return, students used latitude and longitude skills to pinpoint the new project member on a world map.

In the measurement week of the project, participants took the temperature at noon local time and sent the data to all participants. In the final week, participants converted all data to the same unit ¬ Celsius or Fahrenheit ¬ and graphed average weekly temperatures versus latitude to determine if a pattern existed. Data was compiled and shared with other schools.

This project included schools from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Sweden, England and Australia. It included students from traditional school settings, as well as home schoolers who were able to broaden their social contact through e-mail with the other participants. For young students, such simple collaborative data projects are particularly powerful in that they introduce global understanding and sensitivity that is difficult to inspire without using electronic communication.

Public Domain Data Bases

Example 1: Ships at Sea

Hundreds of ships in the world's oceans regularly report their precise location along with basic information about weather and water conditions. These data can easily be obtained from a data base maintained by Ocean Weather, Inc., which updates the information several times each day. While this volume of information can be overwhelming, we have found it provides an exciting way for students to engage in vicarious travel. By pretending they are frightened stowaways on a ship, children can try to determine the location of the port to which their ship is bound. Using sequential reports of location, Internet resources can be employed to calculate the speed and direction of the ship. With this information, estimates for arrival at a port city can be determined.

Example 2: Sun Spots

A great deal of data is available on the Internet describing phenomena in the solar system and further reaches of space. Telescopes from observatories around the world contribute to these reports, as do satellites orbiting the earth and space probes traveling to other planets.

Images of the sun can be studied from the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration's site (http://www.noaa.gov) that show sunspots as well as report on their position on the sun's surface. Since the sun rotates, the changing locations of a sunspot provides an opportunity for students to calculate the rate of the sun's rotation (about 13.3 degrees per earth day). In addition, since the sun is gaseous and not solid, the observed time for the sun to rotate around its axis varies according to location of the sunspot. Using the Internet, students are thus able to make measurements and to draw conclusions about phenomena that were among the first studied in modern science. When the telescope became available, Galileo made these same measurements in the early 1600s!

Visiting Scientific Laboratories

Example 1: Fusion at Princeton

Since the advent of the hydrogen bomb in 1950, scientists have dreamed of gaining control of the fusion reaction. Through this process, they could possibly produce almost unlimited energy from the reaction in which hydrogen and other light nuclei combine or "fuse." One promising research program on controlled fusion is at the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University in N.J.

At Princeton, light atoms are ionized into a gas, placed in a doughnut-shaped magnetic field for containment, and energized with powerful pulses of electrical energy. The plasma reaches temperatures of more than 100 million degrees Centigrade, greater than those in the interior of the sun! For short periods of time deuterium and tritium, which are isotopes of hydrogen, fuse to form the nucleus of helium plus an extra neutron. This fusion reaction releases excess energy. The amount of fusion is not yet at a level for a practical energy-generation plant, but considerable progress is being made in emulating the sun here on earth.

Scientists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (operated by the U.S. Dept. of Energy) are working with our NJNIE group to provide data to students directly from the fusion machine. This is an example of students being able to enter one of the world's leading research facilities and gain access to the data that is being studied there as quickly and easily as its own scientists.

The challenge is to organize the data being produced so that it elucidates basic concepts of science. At the same time, the accessibility of this information lets students share in the excitement of the quest to solve one of the great problems of our age ¬ producing unlimited energy! Efforts are underway, with the leadership of Dr. William Davis, to use this data to elucidate the study of energy, heat, electric and magnetic fields, radioactivity and fusion itself.

A particularly exciting and original feature of this project is the creation of a "virtual fusion machine" on a Plasma Lab Web site. At this site, students can set the controls and specify the parameters for a "shot," during which electrical energy is pulsed into a plasma to see what temperature will be achieved and to observe the amount of fusion that a mathematical model predicts.

Example 2: DNA Research at Rutgers

The field of molecular biology is developing at a staggering pace. Almost as soon as a college text is published, new research demands a revision. The problem of keeping up is particularly severe for pre-college educators and students.

A remedy is being developed by professor William Sofer and his colleagues at the Waksman Institute of Rutgers University. They have been inviting students and teachers to learn about molecular biology and its implications in genetics for several years through summer programs. During this past year, working with the NJNIE, materials are being developed on the Web that will help students gain direct access to tutorials on modern genetics and to opportunities to explore challenging questions and conjectures in that field.

The Waksman Institute has created a Web site with a tutorial on modern genetics called "Morgan," named after the early 20th-century scientist, Thomas Morgan. The Web site is also being developed to lead students to various genome data bases. By examining the genetic sequences of living creatures with similar biological features, interesting research questions can be examined.

Through the Web and Internet, students are again able to enter into the world of the research scientists and engage in a virtual visit in which the same data and the same issues being explored on the frontier of knowledge are also pursued by students from their homes and schools.

Associating with Experts

In all of the examples discussed above, it is extremely valuable, if not crucial, to have a scientist available as a consultant to the project. Teachers cannot be expected to have the background and knowledge needed to guide all aspects of such student work.

In organizing projects, we have attempted to build in this feature. Various search tools and techniques can help identify experts in almost all fields who are interested in working with students and teachers. In some of our projects, like Fusion and Molecular Biology, the organizations developing the material are integrating Ask-a-Scientist features. As this new culture of decentralized "experts" aiding the education of young people evolves, the central position of the "school building" will diminish in importance.

The universality of access to information and experts provided by the Internet helps establish a world where those who seek knowledge and new understanding will be able to gain it from any location ¬ be it school, home, library or community center. n

Note: all of the Internet resources and Web sites referred to in this article can be accessed through the NJNIE Web site at: http://k12science.stevens-tech.edu

Edward Friedman leads the NJNIE project and other programs to integrate computers and information technology into K-12 education. He is also a Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Improved Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. Previously engaged in physics research, Friedman headed a program to create an indigenous college of engineering in Afghanistan and served as Dean of the College at Stevens where, in 1982, the first program in the country was initiated that required all students to own personal computers. He also a member of T.H.E. Journal's Editorial Board. E-mail: [email protected]

Joshua Baron is currently the lead curriculum developer for the NJNIE project. He has taught science to lower- and middle-grade elementary school students, where he pioneered innovative uses of the Internet. E-mail: [email protected]

Cynthia Addison received a Masters Degree in Instructional Technology from the University of Virginia where she aided in the development of Virginia's Public Education Network (VaPEN), the statewide network for K-12 teachers . Addison is currently Internet Training Specialist for the New Jersey Intercampus Network, working on the NJNIE project. Previously she was a classroom teacher and an Internet consultant for the Dalton School in New York City. E-mail: [email protected]

Partial funding for this project is provided by NSF Grant RED-9454719 and from Bell Atlantic Corp.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.