Video Clips At Your Fingertips

February 01, 1990 8 min read

“But, the sun is at a 40-degree angle from the hive,’' responds another.

“No, the bee waggled this way so the nectar must be in the one closest to the hive.’'

The class agrees to try the bush closest to the hive. Thibeault uses the computer to click the cursor on the bush. The TV screen comes alive: The camera sweeps through a field, buzzing past green blades of grass and small shrubs as if the class were a bee in flight. The camera zigzags and comes to rest in a tuft of weeds. “You flew to the wrong bush,’' the computer declares.

Thibeault instructs the class to watch the TV screen. From a menu, he clicks on “The Waggle Dance,’' and the video monitor fills with images again. A voice narrates over frantic bee buzzing, describing how the scout bee in the middle of the hive wiggles and walks in a circular motion to direct the other bees toward the food source.

This lesson in bee dancing at Clarke Middle School in Lexington, Mass., is part of the testing for a new interactive video program based on PBS’s weekly science program, “NOVA.’'

“Interactive NOVA: Animal Pathfinders,’' based on a “NOVA’’ show titled “The Mystery of Animal Pathfinders,’' is the first of a bookshelf series of interactive video science programs for middle and high schools, and the result of a four-year effort by WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, producer of the popular science series. It is complete, has been tested in schools, and is slated for distribution this spring. The program-- co-produced with Peace River Films and Apple Computer--explores animals, their habitats, and behaviors.

At Clarke Middle School, excitement about the program was contagious. “All of a sudden, kids I’ve never seen before started showing up in my room,’' says Thibeault. “They’d point to the machine and say, ‘Mr. Thibeault, could we do this? Could we come in some day and see how this works?’'

According to Ted Sicker, director of interactive projects at WGBH, the idea for “Interactive NOVA’’ came from local teachers who weren’t satisfied just showing the hour-long “NOVA’’ TV program in class. They wanted to bring into their classrooms short bites of the information-packed program, and find ways to get the children actively involved in it.

“Interactive NOVA’’ is a relatively new technological wrinkle, using laser discs--which look like silver LP’s but work like compact discs--to store not just printed words, but also sound, film clips, slides, music, and maps. The student or teacher sits in front of two screens, placed side-by-side--one, a video monitor, and the other, a Macintosh computer. He or she uses the computer to tap into the encyclopedic file of short documentaries, still images, and words stored on the disc. The computer acts as an index: As the teacher or student chooses topics on the computer, color images, film clips, music, narration, drawings, or charts flash up on the TV screen.

The program is organized around four sections--overviews, database, activities, and resources--which are represented by geometric shapes in the corner of the computer screen. When teachers call up the menu, they can enter the program through one of the four options, and they can move instantly from anywhere in the program into a different section simply by choosing one of the shapes.

Although the program is aimed at middle and high school science classes, teachers who have used it say it has the potential for even broader impact. Thibeault, who has tried the program with middle and high school students, says his adult friends also “get a kick out of it;'' even his 5-year-old son has learned from it. And, says Susan Plati, secondary science coordinator for Brookline (Mass.) Public Schools: “It’s not just for honors kids, or the average student, or for nonmotivated students. I found that even after five or six times working with it, I hadn’t begun to scratch the surface of all the stuff that was in there.’'

Indeed, the bee dance adventure, found in the activities section, is only one of a multitude of possible classroom applications. In addition to learning how the scout bee’s fancy steps lead other bees to the nectar bar, students can use the activities section to act out the part of reporters in a simulated seaside environment, investigating why sea turtles are becoming endangered, or they can work with researchers in a field study of butterflies.

Often, classes will begin using “Interactive NOVA’’ in the overviews section of the program. Here, they can watch an introduction demonstrating how the program works, view the original hour-long “NOVA’’ TV program on animal migration, or watch one of the 15 short documentaries, with all new footage on animals and their habitats.

For example, a student might use the Macintosh computer to select a short video clip called “Arctic Tundra.’' Narration from the TV begins: “Beyond the edge of the northern forest lies a treeless land shaped by ice and cold.’' Wind whistles in the background as the camera sweeps across a frozen field. “Winter in the arctic tundra is long and dark, and snow lasts through the spring. Migrating caribou dig for lichens and other plants.’' The student hears the thunderous pounding of hooves as the camera follows a herd of caribou stampeding across endless snow.

After the clip ends, a graphic display of an index card flashes up on the computer screen, offering the student the choice of seeing another short video in the overviews section or entering the database, another major section of the program.

The database is really the backbone of the program in that it allows the user to delve deeper into topics only touched on lightly in the short clips. In the database, the student or teacher uses the computer to tap into one of about 600 “cards,’' with highlights about animals and where they live. The information card pops up on the computer screen and is accompanied by a still picture on the video monitor. Additional still images, maps, and videos are available at the click of a button. Users can either explore the database at random or take a kind of computer “package tour,’' which guides the user through the cards.

As children flip through the selections, the advantage of video over textbooks becomes readily apparent. You can see it in the expressions on their faces as they watch a spider’s body tense before jumping, or a timelapse clip of a tadpole transforming into a frog. “When it’s hard to get turned on by a word, you can usually find visual images that are really quite powerful,’' says Plati, who teaches a biology class.

As kids take the theme tour through “Protective Coloration,’' for example, they can begin to understand the chameleon-like behavior of 17 different animals. On the computer screen, they read about the flounder’s ability to change its appearance to match its oceanic surroundings. Then, they use the computer menu to generate images on the TV screen, where what looks like a sea-shelled area of the ocean floor rises up and swims away.

Simply having the ability to see video images and call up information is useful, but the tools available in the resources section give students and teachers the ability to mold those resources into something of their own. They can create their own slide shows and video presentations by organizing the words and images as they see fit, and they can even build on the database by adding their own text to existing slides and video clips.

Combined, the database and resource sections make for powerful classroom tools, says Jim Lengel, an education consultant to Apple Computer.

For example, teachers can set up a large screen and use the program to provoke discussion, answer questions students raise, or illustrate a concept or fact that they are trying to teach. They can instantly call up a map of North America showing the winter and summer ranges of the blue heron, and then get a picture of the animal in its natural habitat.

With “Interactive NOVA,’' Lengel says, we’ll begin to see a very different kind of class--a class where a concept can be demonstrated visually almost immediately. “If you can bring images up in a moment’s notice,’' says Lengel, “teachers are more likely to allow the class to steer the discussion and explore other subjects.’'

“Interactive NOVA’’ also functions well as a work station for students who want to conduct research independently or in small groups. This aspect is most appealing to students, says Thibeault: “I’d say, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ and they’d sit down and next thing I know they were consumed.’'

If a teacher asks a student, say, to compare the habitat and migration range of the North American beaver and the woodchuck, he or she could go through the database and find the information--in the form of pictures, maps, or text. “Research papers are no longer just research papers,’' says Plati. “The student can merge so many different kinds of media that it’s almost like a documentary.’'

Advocates of interactive video point out that students thrive when they are in the driver’s seat. They learn at their own pace, exploring topics that interest them, and they can instantly review topics they didn’t quite understand. As Lengel puts it, they don’t have to be led by the nose. And teachers say that student motivation pays off with increased student achievement. “They can tell you everything they saw--they can basically recite the video clips,’' Thibeault says.

Waggling bees, of course, are just the beginning. Future “Interactive NOVA’s’’ will have the same format, so that students and teachers will find them familiar and easy to use. Sicker says WGBH hopes to have two more titles out next year. The potential for more programs, he adds, is limited only by the number of existing “NOVA’’ TV shows.

Says Susan Plati, “It’s one of those things that teachers have always said: ‘Well, wouldn’t it be nice when we’re describing something in the natural world, if we could make that thing happen?'--and ‘NOVA’ does it.’'

--Elizabeth Schulz

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Video Clips At Your Fingertips