Videoconferencing | Feature

Taking Students Where No School Bus Can Go

Skype connects Virginia elementary students live with research scientists around the world.

You don't often find a group of 75 fifth graders from a public school in Virginia interacting directly with scientists based at Palmer Station, Antarctica, but that's exactly what takes place every year at Herman L. Horn Elementary in Vinton, VA. Using Skype as a videoconferencing platform--and working together with her school's instruction technology coordinator, Holly Ireland--social studies teacher Amanda Lusk has orchestrated two of these events from the convenience of her own classroom.

Lusk weaves the interactive sessions into her global studies module, which includes instruction about the world's seven continents. "With Antarctica being such a scientifically-oriented continent I thought it would be great to put my students in touch with the people working there," said Lusk, who got the idea to reach out to Alexandra Isern, Antarctic earth sciences program director, from one of her own students.

"He said, 'Hey, my mom knows a scientist,'" recalled Lusk, "so we were able to get in touch with Dr. Isern via e-mail--through that parent contact--and get our first online field trip set up." At the time, Isern was in the Antarctic working on several research projects. Amenable to the idea, Isern worked with Lusk to set up a 45-minute session using a laptop computer, webcam, and Skype's communication software.

Lusk, who had never conducted a videoconferencing session before, turned to Ireland for help. Using her own personal MacBook computer, Ireland set up the software on her laptop and established a link to the interactive Promethean board that was already in Lusk's classroom. The school's Internet connection served as a conduit for the interactive session.

"The first time we did this [in 2011] we lost the connection once," said Lusk. "This year the connection was uninterrupted."

During the call students got a live view of the research station's interior and its surroundings; listened to a presentation; and asked individual questions of the scientist.

"She took her laptop outside and showed students what Antarctica really looks like and what was happening outside," said Lusk. "They saw a pretty harsh, raw environment that was very different from where they live."

Amanda Lusk's Online Videoconferencing Tips

1. Ask the speaker to show his or her external environment (if applicable).

2. Have students come up with questions for the speaker in advance.

3. Network with students, parents, and other teachers to come up with good speaker candidates.

4. If your classroom isn't big enough to accommodate a large group, move the session into a computer lab.

5. Work with your school's IT coordinator to set up the connection and the call.

Questions ranged from "What kind of research do you do on a daily basis?" to "What do you eat for dinner and how do you get fresh food?" Student also wanted to know what the scientist did in her downtime, when she wasn't working or doing research. Other topics discussed included the materials that the research stations were made of, the use of solar power in Antarctica, and what it's like to live for extended periods of time in the frozen tundra.

"It's a great way to expose students to new environments, experiences, and career choices they may not have considered," said Lusk.

In fact, she said Isen's parting words when wrapping up the last Skype session were, "Come on kids, get your education so you can come down here and join us!"

With two online sessions under her belt and a third in the works, Lusk said one of the biggest technical issues she's had to manage is the fact that multiple speakers talking at once can be difficult to understand. For example, the most recent session involved three scientists--a fact that added a layer of complexity to the event. "When more than one person was talking and chiming in with answers to student questions," said Lusk, "it was difficult to discern who was saying what."

Lusk hasn't found a solution to that challenge yet, but said the small glitch didn't take away from the event's educational value. During a time when teachers are striving to get more students involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects, Lusk said making direct connections with real-life scientists is invaluable. The fact that the online events are free to set up and orchestrate makes them especially attractive for budget-conscious K-12 schools.

"This is a way to take students where no school bus can take them and to give them experiences that will last a lifetime," said Lusk. "And who knows? Maybe it will inspire some of them to become scientists someday."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].