Dr. Pamela Martin conducts a virtual class using Skype

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Last week, about 30 School District 65 students used the latest virtual-learning technologies to study a local environmental question. Twenty-two students in the morning and nine others in the afternoon learned about and then presented recommendations on how the City of Evanston can reduce its carbon footprint.

Dr. Pamela Martin, a professor in the Geophysical Science Department of the University of Chicago, conducted a short class, peppered with questions and answers, from her office in Hyde Park for the students who were gathered at the Joseph E. Hill Education Center. With Skype, a software program that allows, among other things, video-conferencing over the Internet, Dr. Martin appeared on a small computer screen as well as on a large Promethean board to discuss with the students ways in which the City and the community can minimize their impact on the environment.

After Dr. Martin’s initial presentation, Middle-school teacher Patti Tzortzis told the three groups of students in the afternoon session they should come up with recommendations for the City of Evanston to reduce its carbon footprint. “Propose what you would like to see done,” she said, then turned the students loose to research on their individual computers.

To jump-start their research, students were provided with a list of links to videos, podcasts and articles on the Internet. While the research was going on, each group of students separately met with Dr. Martin via Skype and asked questions to assist with their research and understanding of the issues.

Each group of students cut and edited data from their Internet research onto a Wiki page, which allows any member of a group to add to the data on the page. Students then used the data from the Wiki page to put together their presentations, which included both slide shows and a short movie on a Promethean board.

One group’s slide show, “Greenification of Evanston,” recommended rooftop gardens and carpooling. Other groups recommended solar panels, government incentives to adopt environmentally friendly practices, and building gardens.

After their presentations, the students used hand-held student-response “Activexpression” devices to respond to a series of questions; their responses were instantaneously collated on a Promethean board. In response to a question, a substantial majority of the students said they “strongly agreed” that speaking with Dr. Martin was helpful with their research and that they would like to learn more about the environment.

Michelle Terry, director of operations and educational programs at the University of Chicago, said this was the first time the University had worked on a program of this nature. She said the University is interested in “connecting research with students” and “sharing research with a broader audience.” Calling the March 27 afternoon study and presentation a “focus group” study and saying it was still at the “pre-, pre-pilot” stage, she said she, Dr. Martin and others at the university would evaluate the program.

Jason Ewing, coordinator of technology for the District, said hundreds of hours were spent preparing the program, including a monitoring system and simultaneous focus group discussions that went along with it. He said the program was an “opening chapter” to collect information to determine new, effective ways to use technology in the classroom.

Mr. Ewing said, “Overall, it was a very successful event.” He said the program demonstrated that students can use technology, that they can interact with an expert in a respectful manner, that they can collaborate and work together in an online project, and that they can work in a condensed time frame. He said the District would do a cost/benefit analysis to determine what pieces of the program could be feasibly implemented in the classroom to improve student achievement

“We’re teaching today’s kids for tomorrow,” said Mr. Ewing. “We’re making sure we stay ahead of the curve.”

Superintendent Hardy Murphy said the District collected feedback from the participating students and from focus groups comprised of parents, teachers and administrators and that the District would evaluate the program and whether it could be replicated on a cost-effective, expanded basis.