Videoconferencing Exposes Students to New Worlds

Since 1939, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization (WMHO), a nonprofit education organization, has been preserving and interpreting historical and environmentally sensitive places in Stony Brook, on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y. A vital key to fulfilling that mission is its commitment to education. Until recently, WMHO's educational programs have been limited to on-site field trips for Long Island students. The organization's historical sites and 88-acre salt marsh wetlands preserve are the basis for six educational programs that serve some 12,000 students each year. There is no question that these programs are a big component of WMHO's success, but just as technology is transforming the traditional classroom, it also allows the organization to reach more students every year through its distance learning program. WMHO trustees realized that the success of the wetlands field trip could start to harm the preserve as the number of students increased each year. So, the question became how to bring the wetlands experience to more students without negatively impacting the salt marsh. At the same time, WMHO wanted the ability to teach students from locations beyond Long Island about the importance of salt marsh ecosystems.

Electronic Explorations

The answer came in 1996 in the form of a TV commercial showing how a small school on an isolated island in the Chesapeake Bay was able to reach learning institutions miles away through Bell Atlantic videoconferencing equipment. With the help of the New York Institute of Technology, WMHO installed its own ISDN-based videoconferencing unit. The next step was to work with then partners at Stony Brook University's Marine Sciences Research Center to adapt WMHO's existing salt marsh ecology program to a distance learning format. One of the challenges in creating a viable videoconference using the on-site program as a model was streamlining the existing curriculum to meet the essential learning objectives in a 45-minute to 60-minute time period. Interactive techniques are incorporated to hold the attention of students and teachers in remote classrooms. The end result was the creation of a new distance learning program called 'Electronic Explorations: The Salt Marsh Ecosystem.'

The main focus of the distance learning curriculum is the food web of the salt marsh ecosystem. Concentrating on this subject enables WMHO to accomplish most of the same learning objectives outlined in the original on-site field trip. Students still learn how to explore an ecosystem, how to classify marine organisms and identify their functional roles in that ecosystem. Some of the ecological issues key to the continued health of West Meadow Creek are also discussed. The food web is used as a starting point to show animal adaptations, introduce invading species and discuss why it is important not to interfere with the balance of any ecosystem. By emphasizing this aspect of the program, WMHO can serve fourth- through ninth-graders, as well as address a variety of K-12 National Academy of Science Education standards and New York state's learning standards for mathematics, science and technology as they relate to the subject areas of ecology and marine biology.

To make these sessions interesting and entertaining, while giving students a sense of what a live visit to the salt marsh is like, WMHO has developed a variety of interactive components and preparation materials for the program. After booking a videoconference with the organization, and prior to the connection date, the distant classroom teacher receives a learning kit with a teacher's handbook and Windows CD-ROM. The handbook includes complete unit lesson plans for pre- and post-videoconference activities, introductory readings, black-line worksheet masters and a resource list. The CD-ROM adds interactive components to pre- and post-conference activities with a food web game, video and audio clips, maps, and a reference component with Internet and Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia access.

During the actual videoconference, a variety of peripherals and materials make the program interesting and instructive. The document camera - one of the most versatile tools - is used to show color slides of microscopic plankton, aerial photos of the wetlands preserve, surrounding land and waters, and detailed close-ups of small marine animals. Mounted in the classroom close to the video monitor, the main camera is indispensable for discussion and interactive games like 'Salt Marsh Jeopardy.' The most innovative piece of equipment is a custom-designed wireless camera and audio system that allow the naturalist to teach right from the water's edge. Set into a pair of eyeglasses, the camera combines the visual impact of the wetlands with a wireless audio system that keeps the naturalist and students in constant communication.

The Salt Marsh Ecosystem distance learning program allows students from across the country to share the wonders of the salt marsh. Most of the time the connection is point-to-point between the naturalist, the facilitator in the Marine Conservation Center and one distant class. The connection may be multipoint, with more than one school dialing in at the same time. WMHO has also set up connections involving classes on-site at the Marine Conservation Center interacting with classes in distant locations. One of the most interesting connections was a customized videoconference with a group of seniors from Perry Meridian High School in Indiana, who were studying water quality in fresh water environments. Their teacher wanted to enhance that unit with similar information about saltwater ecosystems and include a fourth-grade class that the seniors were mentoring at neighboring Abraham Lincoln Elementary. With the help of William Wise, the associate dean of the Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook University in New York, the lesson was adapted and presented to both classes simultaneously through a multipoint connection.

Through 'Electronic Explorations,' students from California, Texas, Indiana, Michigan, Connecticut and beyond have experienced the wetlands of Long Island Sound without leaving their classroom. The distance learning program also reaches students in underserved communities throughout the Tri-State area. With the generous support of the Verizon Foundation, the program has been made available to students in the New York communities of Westbury and Far Rockaway.

Lifelong Learning

Research on how videoconferencing impacts students has shown that it can heighten motivation, improve communication, expand students' connections with the outside world and increase depth of learning. The effectiveness of our program has been measured through evaluation sheets completed by students and teachers after each Salt Marsh Ecosystem connection. Teachers have said they find the program 'exciting and meaningful for students.' They have noted the effect on their students, commenting on the 'lively communication' between students and naturalists. Teachers also said their students have 'enjoyed seeing what they're learning about in the classroom first-hand.' Responses from students also indicate they are fully engaged in the learning process. They welcome the opportunity to engage with experts and visit an environment outside of their home region. The program also heightens curiosity about marine biology and ecology.

The future of distance learning at WMHO is very bright. Last fall, WMHO began offering an 'Electronic Explorations' series for adults on Long Island. WMHO is bringing programs from content providers such as theSmithsonian Environmental Research Center, the Ocean Institute and the Cincinnati Zoo into its facility to introduce videoconferencing to a population inexperienced with this technology. In the process, adults will be provided with lifelong learning experiences. In addition, this year WMHO will launch a new distance learning program called 'The First Long Islanders.' This videoconference will focus on the Native Americans who settled in Stony Brook before the Europeans set foot on these shores. WMHO's Marine Conservation Center broadcast location is next to a Native American site where an anthropological dig unearthed items 3,000 years old. But these distance learning programs are pieces of a much larger picture. WMHO is currently building an 8,800-square-foot Educational and Cultural Center equipped with videoconferencing units and telecommunications technology.

Contact Information

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization
Stony Brook, NY
(631) 751-2244

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.