As more UK schools are signing up and wiring up to the internet, it is a good time to look at what projects coming out of on-line education in America. TERC is an education research and development centre based in Boston, Massachusetts, whose mission is to improve science and maths learning and technology or, as Barbara Sampson, the chief education officer at TERC, says it engages "creative thinkers who want to devolve their professional energies to those who want change in schools".
So what's new and what's working in collaborative science across the wires? The Boston centre is full of projects aimed at getting children thinking scientifically and collaborating, and at making teachers less isolated by setting up structures for communicating. The best place to start is with the Pringles Challenge.
The Pringles Challenge was a science project, for which students sent a single Pringles crisp across America in the smallest package possible that can arrive with the crisp still intact. It was aiming to look at the relationships between mass and volume. The pupils tested their crisps before sending them, and measured and marked the "intactness" of the crisps they received. One teacher e-mailed another: "After days of testing for durability and impact resistance, we sent our package . . . our Pringle has yet to arrive in Mississippi . . . it seems to have some very real applications to physics and the world of business. "
This was part of an on-going discussion between the physics teachers of 13-year-old students. They were discussing this over the Internet in a set-up called Labnet. This provides a framework in which science and maths teachers can communicate about projects they want to set up with students and collaborate with other classes.
For example, one teacher wrote to Labnet, "I'd like to do a project on sand." Other teachers responded and, between them, they fleshed out a project. Another teacher in California ran a project on making propeller-driven cars, where 90 per cent of the mass was paper. Through the e-mail collaboration new ideas were added: the chemistry of paper, polymers and glues. The projects themselves don't necessarily use technology, but Labnet provided the opportunity for the teachers to discuss and build projects. "Teachers are afraid to share ideas, " says Deborah Muscella, a TERC researcher. "We need to become informed about what goes on in each other's classes. It takes a lot of work to get teachers to expose in that way."
Although the final work can be put on the Web, Labnet is basically a teachers' communication tool. Global Lab is a project that aims to share data collected by students across the world. The class will choose a study site to work on and collect data on the temperature, humidity, acidity of the airsoilwater. They feed this into a database set up by Global Lab and can access data from around the world, where students in different countries have input data in the same categories. Hence answers can be forthcoming to those hypotheses, such as how soil in Birmingham, England, differs from soil in Birmingham, Alabama. "We've got schools from every continent except Antarctica," says project co-ordinator Leigh Peake.
Another project, Globe, also has pupils from across the world collecting data. However, in this project the data is used by scientists. While in Global Lab the pupils formulate some of the hypotheses, here it is scientists asking the questions and pupils collecting data daily. The pupils see the results of the data collection in its real application, so may be able to feel a part of a real-life experiment not just class work.
Cleo is an authoring program that lets pupils put their work or projects straight on to the Web without having to transfer it from another program. One pupil has a project on "Which sail works best?" Charlie Hutchinson, one of the developers, said putting pupils' work on the Net can inspire others, and the data can be shared and re-used. He wants pupils to look at the data and say, "I can do better", or "Let's look at these numbers and see what we can make of them."
Finally, a project in the making is one called Using Satellite Images. Images of the Earth from space are taken every few hours showing cloud cover. These are then animated to show cloud movement over a day or two. Pupils can then interpret this data. An added extra is that these images are available from the project's Web site, so the pupils can themselves do the downloading and animating.
All these projects are open to UK schools.
* All of these projects can be accessed through the TERC homepage on http:www.terc.edu