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A CLASS ACT ON THE NET

A Georgia teacher tells how she got her students on the Web--and wild about science

For the past seven years, Rhonda Toon has been an elementary-school teacher in Lamar County, Ga. In response to the June 9 column ''Readin', Writin', and the Internet,'' she wrote this account of her struggle to get her students onto the Internet. For more from the front lines of education, check out www.businessweek.com/tocs/teched.htm.

At my rural Georgia school, over 60% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch, and many of them know little of the world beyond our county. Textiles still play a part in the local economy, but mill closings have devastated many families.

My task as a teacher is enormous. How do I expose these children to the wonders and opportunities available to them? How do I keep bright, talented children focused on education?

One way has been to use technology. For six years, I have had the Internet in my classroom. I have never received any formal computer training. I did what many people do: I purchased a home computer and began to see the classroom applications it could have. But to get the Internet to my classroom, I had to write grant proposals, beg, and borrow. My first grant was $500 from BellSouth. I thought it could wire my room, buy the modem, and pay for telephone and Internet service. I will never forget pleading with the customer-service representative who said I would have to pay the more expensive business rate. I offered--seriously--to sleep in my classroom several nights per week.

I scaled down my plans, the school put up some money, and I went ahead with my first project: Fourth-graders solicited questions from students and submitted them to researchers at Georgia Tech. My students retrieved the answers and aired them over the school's closed-circuit TV system.

DAILY DRILL. A BellSouth grant kept this exchange going for three years. Then my modem was stolen. I won a state award for the Georgia Tech program, and the prize money kept me funded a little longer. A grant from Vice-President Al Gore's Global Learning Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) paid for a new, faster modem and Internet service. Now I could reach the World Wide Web, and a door of opportunity opened.

My students began to use the Internet like an encyclopedia. I knew the Net had become part of the daily routine when bad weather threatened a field trip and a student suggested we check the National Weather Service on the Internet. At a planetarium, Megan, one of my girls, interrupted the talk on downloading images to ask: ''Is that ProComm Plus you are using?'' When the surprised speaker answered ''yes,'' Megan said, ''I use that at school.'' He invited her to demonstrate, and Megan easily downloaded an image from a remote observatory. I was so proud.

The program that has brought the most change in my classroom is Passport to Knowledge (PTK), sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation. Kids get to know working researchers. They read their journals online, have their questions answered, and watch researchers on closed-circuit TV from such places as Antarctica, aboard aircraft flying in the stratosphere, or at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

PTK includes hands-on student activities. My students have constructed aircraft to hold eggs and dropped them from cherry-pickers to simulate the work of NASA engineers. They have submersed their hands in icy water to study the effects of the cold at the South Pole. The PTK crew has helped me to become a better teacher. But most important, they have helped me show rural kids in Georgia that they can become scientists.

It has caused me much pain that such access is not available to all the students at my school. Last year, I decided I had to do something. I wrote letters, made calls, and attended NetDay meetings. With the sponsorship of BellSouth, all the teachers will soon have Internet access in their classrooms, and every child will be able to go on electronic field trips to Mars or Antarctica. It concerns me that there are many school systems like my own where this is not available.

This past year, as my concern over the need for technology integration has grown, I have gone a step further, leaving the classroom to become regional coordinator of the Gordon Georgia Youth Science & Technology Center. I will train teachers to use technology in their lessons.

This country has plenty of willing and able teachers, but they need resources. I know what it is like to have kids come into my room and not be able to name a single scientist. And I have cried when I have had students--after participation in the PTK projects--list not only the names of the scientists they met through this program but their classmates as well. They now see themselves and each other as scientists.

America needs a scientifically literate populace. The use of technology can help us achieve this goal.



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Updated July 17, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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