Bringing Animals To Class

By Emily Sachar — August 01, 1991 5 min read

But most of the teachers who have visited the kiosk plan a return visit. “It can really help you get excited about what you’ll be teaching,’' says Naughton, who travels nearly an hour to use the kiosk. Adds Lewis: “There is just so much more information than I could ever pull together. It is making me a better teacher.’'

To get what she needed, Lewis headed for the St. Louis Zoo. Her first stop was not the aquarium but a special kiosk for teachers only, tucked away in the basement of the Living World, the zoo’s new educational facility. The kiosk, officially called the “interactive multimedia resource interface,’' or IMRI, is equipped with laser discs, a high-quality videocassette recorder, a laser printer, a 25inch television set, and two speakers, all controlled by an Apple Macintosh IIci computer and some special software.

By simply clicking the computer’s mouse, Lewis was able to sort through IMRI’s computerized “encyclopedia,’' which is stored on the laser discs and the computer’s hard drive. It features four and a half hours of full-motion video, 500 slides, two hours of audio tape, and a complete 799-page biology textbook. In two hours, Lewis assembled a multimedia montage to take back to her students at St. Michael’s School.

She created an 18-minute videotape that included a series of silent clips on plankton, sponges, and coral, personalized with a Lewis voice-over. She also brought back a package of computer-generated worksheets that explored some of the ocean topics she planned to discuss. And, by using the laser printer attached to the kiosk, Lewis even printed out reams of material from the on-line textbook to read at her leisure.

“Maybe these materials are available individually in some library somewhere, but I don’t know where,’' Lewis says. “The great part of this system was, it pulled video, audio, and written materials together in one shot. And I could get it all off the computer to take with me.’'

She could also be her own editor. “I wanted to go from the simplest life forms to the most complex, not some other mishmash combination,’' she explains. Lewis had found the lessonplan maker of her dreams.

Created by the multimedia firm Arnowitz Productions Inc. of Mill Valley, Calif., IMRI is one of the world’s most sophisticated education applications of multimedia technology. It is the brainchild of a zoo consultant and several staff biologists who wanted to give teachers a tool to access the huge amounts of print and video material in the zoo’s library. They also hoped to inspire teachers to visit the zoo with their students. The project is the newest piece of a decades old commitment by the zoo to create a world-class teaching facility on animals and ecology, according to zoo director Charlie Hoessle. The Living World, where IMRI is housed, includes several other high-tech facilities for teachers and students.

The zoo’s zoologists and biologists say they ordered IMRI to enhance, not replace, the teacher’s role as curriculum writer and to turn students on to science through the teacher created materials. “Kids need to see science as discovery and inquiry rather than as terminology that has a narrow application to their world,’' says education curator Bruce Carr.

IMRI is open to teachers in the St. Louis region but, space permitting, may be tapped by visiting teachers from other cities, as well. To use the kiosk, teachers phone or write ahead to reserve a date and time. Zoo personnel escort them to the IMRI kiosk when they arrive at the Living World.

While the zoo’s 9-month-old, $300,000 multimedia kiosk is unique in the depth and breadth of the topics it covers and its accessibility, educators and computer aficionados nationwide say it is just the latest and most elaborate addition to a rapidly growing multimedia world in education. That world is now giving teachers and students the ability not only to view information from a variety of media but also to select, reorganize, and reproduce it in much the same way a television editor or a documentary filmmaker does.

At least a dozen companies now produce laser discs on specialized topics from AIDS to Palestinian unrest, and the most recent of these interact with “stacks’’ generated by computer programs, like Apple Computer’s HyperCard, to give their users control of audio, video, and print.

The St. Louis Zoo’s IMRI uses three software packages--Macromind Director, Omni Five, and a special program designed by Arnowitz--that make editing especially easy. When a teacher sits down at the kiosk, he or she selects from a variety of menu topics, such as Kinds of Animals, What Animals Do, Where Animals Live, Ecology, and Conservation. Then, the teacher may search and select any subtopic--Elephant Reproduction, for instance. Teachers may opt to refine their search further, specifying, say, a type of animal in a search on animal habitats. Within minutes, a shopping list of possible video, audio, and print clips appears on the screen.

By clicking the mouse, the teacher may select the clips he or she wants to see and hear. Another mouse click allows the teacher to discard or save clips and reorganize the order in which they play or print. Finally, the preferred video clips are sent to the VHS recorder, where the teacher may add a recorded message for the students, and the printed materials are sent to the laser printer. The teacher pays no fee to use the kiosk.

Fourth grade teacher Angela Naughton, searching for information on conservation and recycling, turned up a video on ecology played to the music of the B-52s, a video of students talking about why recycling is so important, and a silent film showing the Earth as seen from a satellite. Another teacher’s search for materials on salamanders brought up four clips, two video and two written. Some searches even produce games that teachers may print out and take back to their classrooms.

And the information the system now contains is only a fraction of its potential. The laser discs are housed in a kind of jukebox that can hold up to 72 discs. It currently holds only eight. The zoo’s staff is planning to add more soon.

Teacher-users have offered a few suggestions for improving the kiosk. Sometimes, they say, the program yields video and audio clips that appear to have little relation to the search at hand. Other times, the system has scant information on a topic. That, Carr says, will be fixed as more laser discs and printed material are added to the system.

But most of the teachers who have visited the kiosk plan a return visit. “It can really help you get excited about what you’ll be teaching,’' says Naughton, who travels nearly an hour to use the kiosk. Adds Lewis: “There is just so much more information than I could ever pull together. It is making me a better teacher.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Bringing Animals To Class