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October 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 2

The Kids Network: Student-Scientists Pool Resources

By combining hands-on research and telecommunications, the National Geographic Society has linked more than a million youngsters in cooperative and authentic scientific exploration.

At Scarlett Middle School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a life science class has worked on a unit on acid rain. The 7th graders researched different types of coal and scrubbers for removing impurities and contacted various utility companies to find out the type of coal they use. They also researched air pollutants and wind direction, and collected and tested rain samples.
For another unit, called “What's in Our Water?” several students wanted to get data about the pH of the rainwater in a reservoir. So they used a computer and modem to send an electronic message to other 7th graders who live near a reservoir. When the response appeared on the computer screen, it included a number of things: data the students could chart and graph, an analysis of the data with reasons that patterns do and do not show up, and key questions to help the students focus their research.

Forming the Network

These budding scientists are part of the NGS Kids Network, the fruit of an ongoing collaboration between the National Geographic Society and TERC, Inc., a nonprofit curriculum and software developer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, Kids Network enables elementary and middle school students to grapple with basic concepts in science and geography, and to hone their skills in communication, research, and science processes. The program offers a unique blend of structured curriculum units, hands-on science investigations, interdisciplinary connections, computer software tools, and dial-up telecommunication links—a mix that deserves careful scrutiny as schools face increasingly complex choices in planning how best to integrate technology and instruction.
Each Kids Network unit focuses on a real-world, socially significant problem and features hands-on experiments. In addition to acid rain and “What's in Our Water?” schools may sign up for “Too Much Trash?” (kids examine the makeup and quantity of their trash and what they can do about our trash problems), “What Are We Eating?” (kids analyze foods in their own lunches for nutrient content), “Weather in Action” (kids investigate local storms or floods and set up weather observation stations), or “Solar Energy” (kids build solar collectors and measure radiation levels and examine how solar energy intensity varies from place to place).
Each curriculum fits the new national standards in several subjects and aligns with thematic frameworks in science. An introductory unit called “Hello!” introduces students to scientific research methods, telecommunications, and computer tools, such as word processing, graphing, mapping, and data entry.
In the fast-changing world of educational technology, this pioneering program is already an old-timer. Since it was launched in 1989, more than a million and a half children and many thousands of teachers in every state in the U.S. and 43 other countries have participated. Because Kids Network has software for Apple IIGS, Macintosh, and DOS platforms, and because U.S. schools pay a flat fee with no long-distance charges, a wide variety of schools can join—rural, urban, and suburban, and, increasingly, international sites.

Reaching Out to Collaborate

The key word in the Kids Network is collaboration. In the classroom, students work in small groups and share their results in class discussions. Beyond that, the National Geographic Society assigns each class to a research team of 10 or more classes that are working on the same eight-week unit, making sure the classes are in geographically diverse areas.
Students are aided in their investigations by computer software tools that are easy to use and that help teach basic skills that all children need to learn. Through weekly computer transmissions, the classes exchange letters and data with team members in other cities. Every participant contributes to the enlarged understanding of all. Carolyn Scott, who teaches the Ann Arbor students, says We're not restricted to experiments, opinions, or experiences of people within the classroom walls. Telecommunications increases the resources that I can give to students both qualitatively and quantitatively (as much as 600 samples of acid rain data).
In her water unit, Scott's students not only tapped into diverse information about watersheds and water sources, but also “attitudes about the environment that didn't exist in our own town.”
Although students work with data from a variety of people and places—in the U.S. and abroad—all students use the same procedures, instruments, and materials—pH paper or nitrate test strips, for example, to test their water samples. As Scott says, “This makes our data more valid.”
Once all the research teams collect their data, the Kids Network staff compiles the information into computer graphs and maps that they send to members of each team. These graphs and maps remain useful even after the unit is completed. A scientist writes to the children about their data, pointing out patterns, and, in the process, modeling the way scientists think about data.
In essence, students and teachers explore science by doing what scientists do: they participate in a scientific community devoted to learning about the world. Students pose and research questions about their local community, form hypotheses, collect data through experiments, and analyze results. The answers are largely unknown in advance, and the findings are of interest beyond the classroom. Students share their findings with their “colleagues” across the country, draw conclusions, discuss implications, and, finally, present their findings to their parents or the community.

Updating Teaching and Technology Skills

The nontraditional Kids Network classroom encourages nontraditional teaching. Because each unit focuses on a real-world problem instead of a particular skill or discipline, a well-organized and detailed teacher's guide is invaluable, especially for teachers accustomed to relying on the structure of a textbook.
Team teaching also works best, for several reasons. First, the Kids Network curriculum structure and software tools lend themselves to an interdisciplinary approach. Kathryn Bailey, the K–12 technology coordinator for Atlanta's Paideia School, explains how this worked in practice when Paideia students obtained data about nitrates in the Chattahoochee River: Learning extends into other lessons. For language arts, students write letters to their teammates; for science, they may look at ecosystems; for science and geography, they use a dynamic mapping tool to analyze, interpret, and draw conclusions about demographic information from part of the United States and the world; for math and science, they organize, chart, and graph data.
Schools also move from teaching computer applications as a separate subject to using computers to facilitate learning in many different curriculum areas.
Another reason that Kids Network teachers commonly join forces is that interdisciplinary teaching, computer use, and hands-on investigations all take more time than a traditional lecture approach. For mutual support in preparing for class and mastering technology, the science teacher may lead the hands-on experiments and data analysis, while the technology specialist conducts other sessions in a computer lab and handles the telecommunications. Or, a science teacher may team up with a language arts or social studies teacher.
The Kids Network also changes individual teaching styles. For example, Robert Kopicko, who teaches 6th and 7th grade math and science at Abbott Middle School in West Bloomfield, Michigan, reports I'm much more comfortable stressing the process of understanding science and much less concerned about covering vast quantities of science content.
Teachers' views of how learning should occur in the classroom change as well. Bob Furino, a technology consultant with the Grant Wood Area Education Agency advises educators in more than 50 public and parochial districts around Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He observes that The students start creating or guiding their own learning. They do the work and they have the responsibility to learn. The teacher steps back and becomes a facilitator.
Furino notes that not every teacher feels comfortable in this role: It's difficult for some teachers to give up the reins of the classroom. They are used to standard, teacher-led lessons. At first, they get a feeling that they're not in control. They have to trust students to do the assignments and bring together their knowledge and understanding.
Finally, Kids Network brings students and teachers into the realm of authentic assessment, giving all students a chance to show what they've learned. Because the units delve deeply into significant questions (and because not all children learn or express themselves best in the same way), no multiple-choice test could adequately measure all aspects of students' progress. The Kids Network helps teachers become more comfortable with authentic assessment by suggesting ways of using portfolios, anecdotal notes, observations, and other methods.
Because Kids Network incorporates so many higher-level teaching skills, Montes sees the program as a powerful tool for staff development: The strategies they used were the same ones we've introduced in inservice workshops for years. But they were able to apply what they learned to their own planning and teaching in all other content areas.
Staff development also extends to computer skills. As the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment has stated, “Inadequate attention to teacher support can bar the best use of new technologies in the classrooms.“ For this reason, Kids Network's toll-free hot line is one key to the program's success. The hot line staff handle as many as 80–100 calls a day from teachers. As Furino says, this can make all the difference: Getting a computer to dial a modem to access a telecommunications service can seem a daunting prospect. An on-site technology coordinator providing just-in-time computer training would be ideal, but few schools have that luxury.

An Appetite for Exploration

Most important, how do kids themselves respond to the Kids Network? Participating teachers give the program high marks for motivating their students. Ann Arbor teacher Scott finds it “a dynamic resource”: It's changing, current, live information, attitudes, and data, ideal for motivating the students of today, with their exposure to television and, increasingly, to video games and home computers.
Teachers often report surprising transformations—the class cutup who becomes an inspiring leader, the withdrawn child who begins to blossom, the slow learner who designs the best rain collector, the foreign-born student who finally volunteers to speak in English. Patti DeBuck, who teaches computers at St. John's School in McLean, Virginia, recalls one creative student who previously had difficulty staying on task in a large group project: During Kids Network, he took responsibility for using the CD-ROM in the library to do extra research. His level of confidence increased, and he stayed on task throughout the unit.
Teachers also report that authentic teaching and assessment and the shift to a more student-centered environment reduce discipline problems. Says DeBuck: When students know at the beginning of the unit that at the end they will present their findings to their parents and the community, they proceed with focus and a sense of ownership. My students brainstormed ideas for a presentation project; they decided to make a video. They wrote the script and helped behind the scenes and in front of the camera.
Montebello students were responsible for planning, preparations, and presentations for parent night. “They did everything,” Montes says, and she noticed “tremendous changes in both the teachers and the classroom”: Beforehand, children were involved in more traditional types of discipline. They were hard to motivate. After Kids Network, the students became observers and listeners with an intent to learn.
Montes sees a process of mutual growth: Using Kids Network for the first time, teachers tend to stick closely to the lesson plans in the teacher's guide. They are frequently amazed to see their students going beyond what is required, asking questions of their own, wanting to do additional research.

Limits of Technology

Lasting success in using the Kids Network depends on leadership by at least one person in a school—a teacher, computer specialist, or administrator—who takes responsibility for registering classes in Kids Network and who helps neophyte teachers make their first telecommunications connection.
Still, Kids Network does not catch on in every school that tries it. But the failures are as instructive as the successes.
If the district has only one computer specialist to support many schools, and very few teachers who feel comfortable using a computer, it's probably best to start Kids Network in one school at a time, concentrating on that school until the teachers have experienced success.
Having enough equipment is also vital. One computer system and a modem in the classroom may suffice if the room has a direct outside phone line. But that is still rare. Although some dedicated souls have managed to do their telecommunicating at home or to push a computer cart across a gravel courtyard to a room with a phone line, it isn't fair to expect teachers to put up with such inconvenience. Feasible alternatives include providing the teacher and class with access once a week to a computer lab with a phone line or putting one or more computers in the teacher's classroom and a compatible computer with a modem in another room that has a phone line, such as the library or the staff room.
For schools on the leading edge of technology, with plenty of equipment and direct, subsidized access to the Internet, Kids Network has other limitations. It is not yet accessible through the Internet and does not offer browsing of the World Wide Web. Some Kids Network participants also use Internet, separately, as a source of additional information about a unit topic or as a means of staying in touch with classes they have met on Kids Network after a unit ends.
Enterprising teachers who have enjoyed Kids Network are beginning to organize their own collaborative units through the Internet or commercial services, such as America Online and Prodigy. As network services improve and grow, such do-it-yourself efforts should become easier. For schools still struggling to integrate technology and curriculum, the National Geographic Society Kids Network may be the best first step toward transforming the organization and quality of teaching and learning.
End Notes

1 Office of Technology Assessment, (April 1995), Teachers and Technology: Making the Connection, (Washington, D.C.: Office of Technology Assessment).

Monica Bradsher has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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