- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

A group of high school students pouring chemicals into beakers in science class is hardly a unique event. What is unique, however, is watching those students from halfway around the world and across several time zones. But that is exactly what happened as 10th- and 11th-grade students at the Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School (WMST) saw their peers in Minnesota, Japan and Taiwan perform live science experiments.

The students were participating in Megaconference Jr., a daylong event Feb. 22 that allowed elementary, middle and high school students from around the world to make presentations and interact in real time on the Internet.

Topics on the day’s schedule included Indonesian culture, food and dance; a journey through Africa; family traits in various cultures; the physical science behind roller coasters; space exploration; and a math game similar to the popular “Deal or No Deal” TV show.

“My students are thrilled,” said Cathy McQuone, a ninth-grade science teacher in Tallahassee, Fla., whose class presented “Students Journey Into Space With Astronaut Norm Thagard.”

About 170 public and private schools from the United States and 16 other countries participated in the event, made possible by high-speed Internet, videoconferencing equipment and dedicated educators. About 20 schools led live presentations. Other schools, designated as active participants, interacted with presenters by asking questions, making comments or participating in games. For the most part, it was student-led.

The students from Washington, D.C., who stayed after school for the event, watched the jumbo computer screen at the front of the room as peers from Cambridge-Isanti High School in Minnesota created tall, orange flames by heating sodium chlorate and organic materials. Students from Dali National High School in Taiwan slept at school so they could join the conference at 5 a.m. to perform a science experiment for their U.S. peers.

As may be expected, some technical glitches arose. The picture was grainy at times, and it was difficult to hear when students at multiple sites spoke simultaneously.

Clinton Harris, a chemistry professor at WMST, said the experience connects students to the curriculum by letting them see “the chemistry they’re learning here is the same chemistry … in other countries.”

The conference is in its fourth year and is spearheaded and organized by several institutions, including Ohio State University, the University of Pennsylvania, K-12 service groups such as Chester County Intermediate Unit in Pennsylvania and St. Clair County Regional Educational Service Agency in Michigan, and TIES, a state educational-technology group in Minnesota. It is delivered via Internet 2, the network used by the higher education and research community.

The goal, organizers said, is to encourage students to interact with peers around the globe, generate interest in new topics and familiarize them with technology.

“That’s what this conference is all about,” said Jennifer Oxenford, associate director of MAGPI, the Internet 2 provider for the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re the ones who are going to be using it.”

To prepare their presentation, Mrs. McQuone’s ninth-graders from Florida State University High School visited the nearby Challenger Learning Center, a nonprofit organization aimed at fostering interest in math, science and technology.

Using the center’s equipment, the charter school students simulated a landing on Mars and created a video, narrated by Mr. Thagard. The video was shared in real time, and Mr. Thagard answered students’ questions about how astronauts eat and sleep in space, and how they turn around the space shuttle for its return to Earth.

Mrs. McQuone hoped listeners would catch the same excitement about space that her students did as they created the presentation. “They couldn’t get enough,” she said.

Meanwhile, three international students from Queen Elizabeth High School in Alberta gave short descriptions of struggles in their homelands of Somalia, Liberia and Sudan, and how they have adjusted to living in North America.

Possibly the best thing that could emerge from a conference such as this, Mrs. McQuone said, is friendship across cultures.

“I think it breaks down cultural barriers,” she said.

Schools that have participated in previous Megaconference Jr. events have developed several spinoff Internet projects.

Organizers hope the conference will include even more schools next year. Mrs. McQuone said schools are more likely to undertake the daunting task of acquiring the technology after learning about events such as Megaconference Jr.

“We need more people to videoconference with,” she said.

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