Apr 11 2007

Peeking Over Scientists' Shoulders

Internet2 lets students participate in real-time discoveries anywhere in the world.

Internet2 lets students participate in real-time discoveries anywhere
in the world.

Scott Bryan uses Internet2 at his Troy (Mich.) School District to allow students to operate real scientific instruments remotely.

Photo credit: GLENN TRIEST

It's said when you open a book your mind can wander anywhere. Read a biography on oceanographer Robert Ballard and instantly you're transported to his surprise discovery of the Titanic in 1985. But what if Ballard could have actually taken you with him?

In some classrooms, students don't have to imagine this type of adventure. Internet2, an Ann Arbor, Mich., networking consortium, allows schools high-speed access to universities, libraries and museums throughout the world, and yes, to Ballard's next dive. With an Internet2 connection – the backbone is 10,000 times the speed of home cable or Digital Subscriber Line – students can watch live as explorers, scientists and practically anyone of educational note, go about their jobs. In addition, students can ask them questions as they work. Stretching beyond this, students from all over the world interact with each other through Internet2, allowing children to appreciate all cultures in a way print media can't match.

Discovering New Knowledge

“We started Internet2 on the university level but then decided to do a state network,” says Louis Fox, the consortium's director. “We now have 38 states involved and it keeps growing. On one level, it provides access to rich multimedia, whether it's CD-quality audio or short clips for teachers and students to make use of. But it's also about the Manhattan School of Music allowing students to audition without having to provide a plane ticket.”

One door it's helped open further is the Jason Project, which Ballard founded partly to show students the remains of the famed wreck in a way James Cameron could only dream. Today, Jason utilizes Internet2 to connect classrooms throughout the world. “We've been able to show things like wetlands and Hurricane Katrina to students everywhere,” says Caleb Schutz, president of Jason. An upgrade to the program even allows a dozen students to be onsite with the experts, while taking questions from their peers throughout the country.

Ballard is working to improve “telepresence” so that viewers will use Internet2 for gazing into research labs throughout many different sciences. Says Schutz: “Scientists will be at their desk discovering a new phenomenon and you'll see it, too, broadening the ability to understand the wonder and the excitement of it.”

Scott Bryan, the director of technology for Troy (Mich.) School District has seen the benefits. “Several years ago we had students at my previous district getting a scanning electron microscope through remote access. To put your hands on very expensive instruments that are real tools with real scientists using them is unbelievable. It changed the discussion in the classroom to what material science might be to a live discussion.”

Schools can connect to Internet2 through their state education networks. Internet2 officials work with these networks to understand schools' specific needs and suggest programs they can participate in.

“It requires a different thought process” for buying Internet access, says Bryan. “Knowing multiple T1s for a single district are not capable of handling the access needs Internet2 would have, we have to get over the ‘buying megabytes' hurdle.”

Although IT managers will find many materials online through basic Internet connections, both Schutz and Fox say one of Internet2's top goals is to get every student faster computer access. “The ultimate goal is for computers to be used as a primary vehicle for teaching,” says Schutz.

Five Recent Internet2 Projects

  1. Exploratorium Science Museum collections in San Francisco
  2. Neptune project, the world's first ocean observatory
  3. Bob Ballard expedition to the Gulf of Mexico
  4. Megaconference Jr.
  5. Manhattan School of Music tryouts

Taking the Plunge

How would you and your students like unprecedented access to the last frontier on Earth? If this intrigues you, welcome to a new project called Neptune.

Neptune is a $200 million plan to put an extensive network of instruments on the ocean floor, connect them to a fiber-optic cable and see what happens. This project expects to allow people worldwide to receive unprecedented real-time and archived data from the bottom of the ocean.

The part of the project expected to take place off the coasts of Oregon and Washington is scheduled to start this year. A consortium of U.S. and Canadian institutions are designing and building this part of the project, known as the northern loop.

Scientists, engineers, educators and others are expected to have interactive control over robotic vehicles and instruments. Technological advances will make it possible to view high-definition live video from the ocean floor. And being able to study long-term patterns from the ocean floor may help increase understanding of earthquakes, volcanoes and massive storms.

By the Numbers

  • 33% of K–12 schools in the participating 38 states are connected to Internet2 via the Sponsored Education Participant Groups program.
  • 14% of K–12 schools connect to the Internet2 backbone network at 10 megabits per second or faster.
  • 17% of state education networks report at least half their schools are multicase enabled.
  • 43% of K–12 schools connected through state education networks have H.323, Digital Video Transport Service, Motion Picture Experts Group or other videoconferencing compression/decompression available.