- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

SYKESVILLE, Md. | On Monday afternoon, Adam Biemiller and Eric O’Neal stood in front of a projection screen in the media center at Sykesville Middle School, holding a small model of a lunar habitat they had designed.

As they spoke about the materials they might use to build such a structure, an educational specialist from the Johnson Space Center in Houston was watching and listening as if she were in the room with the two students and more than 40 of their classmates.

Two eighth-grade science classes were having their second live videoconference through NASA’s Digital Learning Network, which allows students all over the country to talk with experts and educators from the space program. Connecting to the network requires special interactive videoconferencing equipment to provide real-time two-way audio and video between schools and other locations.

Earlier this year, Carroll County Public Schools purchased three of these units, which cost about $9,000 each and come with a camera and microphone, said Chief Information Officer Gary Davis. Two of the units are at Winters Mill and Westminster high schools.

Staff had tested the equipment many times, but May 27 was the first time students at all three schools were able to use the new technology to connect to NASA. The students were given an assignment called the “Return to the Moon Challenge”: Design a lunar habitat for a 30-day mission and come up with the best geographic location for the base to be constructed. They were able to ask questions and get feedback from experts on how to proceed with the project.

On Monday, after nearly two weeks of research, the students at Sykesville Middle School gave formal PowerPoint presentations to educational specialist Erin McKinley, of the Johnson Space Center.

The three initial sites were chosen because they are connected to the county’s fiber-optic network, which will eventually digitally connect nearly 100 public buildings. Officials said that about half of the schools in the county are connected, and the remaining sites should be added by the middle of the 2009-10 school year.

Margaret Pfaff, director of curriculum, instruction and staff development, said having the videoconferencing equipment is a big step in integrating technology into the school system, and it has even greater potential than virtual field trips. She said the school system eventually plans to use the devices to offer virtual regional classes, particularly for high school courses with low enrollment.

Students from different schools would be able to take the same class without having to leave their home schools. Miss Pfaff said this concept tentatively is set to be piloted in early 2010, with a German class between Century and Liberty high schools. It is still in the early planning stage, she said.

“It’s not quite as simple as turning on a computer and camera,” she said. “It will require a different way of teaching.”

The school system’s technology services department also had some challenges with the new equipment. Mr. Davis said there are many steps involved in digitally connecting to another site, and the school system’s firewall had to be reconfigured to allow the conference with NASA to happen. There were some technology glitches along the way.

There are also factors that the school system can’t control. The three schools had initially planned to have a videoconference May 18, but after several attempts they were unable to establish a connection with NASA. It turned out there was a problem with AT&T;’s service, which prevented the connection, Mr. Davis said.

Science teacher Linda Murphy said the videoconference was a great experience for the students. They have several research assignments throughout the year, but this one allowed them to be more creative, she said.

The interaction with NASA was crucial, she added. “It added authenticity to an assignment,” Miss Murphy said.

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