Nation shall speak unto nation

4th November 1994 at 00:00
John Foster reports on a trans-global network that unites children in research on geographic and environmental projects.

New technologies, too often, are used to carry old and sometimes discarded messages: the computer becomes a page turner; little pieces of educational archaeology re-invent abandoned teaching methods because they are easy to program. Much of the activity on Campus 2000 consisted of more seductive ways of getting children to write to pen-pals, and these activities are now being transmogrified into the "potential" of the superhighway that the nation's children should talk unto nations.

The National Geographic Kids Network was developed in the Science Center at the Technology Educational Research Center (TERC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1990. The development phase was funded by the National Science Foundation in Washington, and the National Geographic Society, which was involved from day one, has promoted, published and now runs the network.

Kids Network was the brainchild of Bob Tinker at TERC, and it has spawned many such projects. After substantial trials in 200 sites, a series of units was produced that has been so successful that TERC plans to launch a middle-schools follow-up to the initial elementary schools series.

Thousands of primary schools, scattered all over the world, sign up each year for Kids Network. They commit themselves to working collaboratively on a project in a "research team" of 10 to 15 schools within an eight-week period. The first two weeks is for teacher preparation with the National Geographic Society providing on-line help.

The NGS makes up teams of "geographically dispersed" schools and offers a choice of four or five different units at any one time, each of which is repeated three or four times a year.

In the starter unit, "Hello", the children get used to the idea of collecting data, entering it into the computer (an Apple IIGS, Macintosh, IBM PS2 or equivalent with modem) and sharing it via e-mail with other schools. Other units are "What are we eating?", "What's in our water?", "Acid rain", "Too much trash?", "Weather in action" and "Solar energy".

The children write by e-mail to their team schools but their data is available to every school taking part. They can also correspond with a "unit scientist", a professional from the field of their research. But since there can be thousands of students involved, these communications are by no means individual to a single school, unless it is doing spectacularly different work.

Each unit costs about $375 ("Hello" is cheaper) and consists of software and sample files, a fairly comprehensive teachers' guide which includes background information, a class set of full-colour student handbooks, National Geographic wall maps, the scientific materials required to do the unit, copiable activity sheets and software.

You also get free access to the network for the eight-week period, and 120 minutes of telecommunications time. The second time you do the unit, you only pay for the network connection costs (about $115) and for any replacement scientific materials most, if not all, of which you can buy more cheaply locally.

The children transmit their latitude and longitude to NGS and they then appear as a white spot on a world map on their computer that gets up-dated each time they go on line. All the white spots represent schools that are doing their unit, and as they start feeding data back to NGS, a click on the spot accesses the data collected there. The children can decide how that data is displayed and manipulate it as a table, a bar chart or a pie chart . They can compare their results with other schools in their team or discuss them in e-mailed letters.

Inevitably, the unexpected occasionally occurs. Children in Nigeria, for instance, were appalled by the meat-eating habits of their US team colleagues in the "What are we eating?" unit and, in the "Trash" unit, by what they threw away.

The American students, in their turn, were a bit surprised by an onslaught from South America in response to their criticism of the clearing of the rain forests. And a New England Atomic Power Station was frustrated by a group of 10-year-olds, who, fully understanding water tables from their work on the Kids Network, and armed with GIS images of their area, successfully argued against radioactive waste dumping in a secure area of the power station grounds at a public planning enquiry.

National Geographic Society, Educational Services, 1145 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036-4688. (Fax: 0101- 301 921 1575); TERC, 2067 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140. (Fax: 0101-617 349 3535).

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