Jason Project Adds Sense of Adventure To Learning Science

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"I feel stu-u-upid," says Jenna Baker, grinning while holding around her waist the oversized white pants of a NASA spacesuit.

The pants, held up by red suspenders, make the Indiana 9th grader look more like a clown than an astronaut. But she's here at the Johnson Space Center with a serious purpose: trying to solve scientific problems with some of the space agency's top scientists, and, in just a few minutes, making the experience come alive for hundreds of thousands of other students who will be watching her across the country via satellite and the World Wide Web.

Ms. Baker, 15, and 27 other teenagers, as well as eight teachers, were lucky enough to be selected for this year's expedition of the Jason Project, the best-known and most sophisticated of a growing number of "virtual field trips" designed for schools.

Ninth grader Jenna Baker tries on a spacesuit as she and NASA engineer Phil West, right, prepare for a Jason Project "telepresence" broadcast to students around the world.
—The Jason Foundation for Education

Such trips can be as simple as a single adventurer communicating by electronic mail to a group of schoolchildren. But the Jason Project, led by Robert D. Ballard, the scientist who discovered the wreck of the RMS Titanic, is a multimillion-dollar effort backed by major corporations and education and scientific groups.

Past Jason expeditions in the project's 11-year history have been held in locations such as Belize, Iceland, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. This year's expedition used two sites—Houston and the waters off Key Largo, Fla.—for its five daily broadcasts, which ran Feb. 28 to March 10.

The Key Largo site focused on the Aquarius Underwater Laboratory, which is owned and operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The dual sites were used to explore the theme "Going to Extremes," which was designed to show students how scientists work in the extremes of outer space and undersea environments. The chief scientific skill they're learning is how to observe, Mr. Ballard said.

"When you look at being an astronaut or an aquanaut, the kids all say, 'That's what I want to be.' But you want to impress on them that there's a reason for going," he said. "You want to make an observation, collect a sample. You want to learn, say, about the coral reef systems of our world."

'PIN' Sites

While the expedition takes place in Houston and Florida, 37 other sites are really the point of the Jason Project.

Those are the "primary interactive network," or PIN, sites—multimedia auditoriums where students can take part in the live, one-hour expedition reports. This year, about 400,000 students across the United States and in Bermuda, Mexico, Britain, and Australia took field trips to the PINs, which are generally operated by science museums or universities.


The project is moving more of its material online, as shown above.

The broadcasts—which Jason officials call "telepresences"—use three screens to show multiple images and shift quickly between locations for live pictures. Students from each PIN site can also prerecord questions for the scientists to answer on the air.

In Ms. Baker's segment, she talked about spacesuits with engineer Phil West of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Mr. West explained to the viewing audience about her backpack, which contains a jet-propulsion system and life-support systems that would sustain an astronaut if he or she became untethered from the International Space Station, where the suits will be used.

Ms. Baker took a series of clumsy hops, and pretended to operate the suit's hand-held jets, leading to a discussion of Newton's Third Law of Motion.

Then the scene switched to the water outside Aquarius in Florida, where scientists in diving suits compared their equipment to that of astronauts. Mr. Ballard, who was moderating, followed that by splicing in a student's prerecorded question from one of the PIN sites. The divers answered the question live.

Conquering such distances with live and nearly live programming demands first-class technology. For example, the Aquarius site used three digital microwave systems to get video signals to shore before retransmission to Houston. The Houston site used five T-1 lines and more than 30 voice-grade lines. All the video streams were mixed and edited in a full production studio in a semi-trailer parked outside the building, then sent to the PIN sites via satellite.

Such technology is expensive, but is largely underwritten by the project's corporate sponsors, including systems integrator EDS Corp. and Sprint Communications Co. And that doesn't count the world-class communications infrastructure that the Johnson Space Center has lent the project.

The Jason Project's budget for each expedition has been about $5.2 million, according to Tim Armour, the executive director of the project. Another significant expense, he said, is hiring teachers and scientists to develop a complete curriculum every year that is tailored to the new expedition and aligned with state and national academic standards.

The full-year curriculum is a crucial part in project's educational value, Mr. Ballard emphasized. "Remember that the students will only experience in the school year a one-hour broadcast [at the PIN site]," he said. "They're really spending most of their time—50 hours or more—in the classroom before the expedition and after the expedition. The field trip is really the motivational component of all that homework and teaching that they've done."

Online Plans

Increasingly, Jason Project officials are using the Web to deliver educational materials, which also include videos and books.

An estimated 350,000 students have used www.jasonproject.org, officials say, either in conjunction with a PIN-site visit or as their sole window into the project. This year, the Web site offered a daily one-hour live broadcast and topical live chats with participants, as well as canned digital video and audio segments, background materials, and teacher resources.

Educationally speaking, the Web offers the Jason Project its greatest potential, and might eventually replace the PIN sites entirely, Mr. Armour said.

"The Web is the future," he said. "We are on the brink of pushing the concept to scale to have a nationwide impact on education."

A classroom-based Jason experience has some advantages over the PIN-site version—such as convenience and ready access to the Internet and to students' own experiments, Mr. Armour said. But he confessed that the project's leaders don't know yet how to make a Web-only experience as vivid and exciting.

A two-year evaluation of the Jason Project issued last summer by Eastern Research Group Inc. had high praise for the project, reporting that most teachers said the program had exceeded their expectations.

But the report also noted several challenges. "As Internet access and use of Team Jason Online grows, teachers struggle with ways to actively involve each student in online activities," the report concluded.

Teachers also reported that they needed more training, though every year the PIN sites offer one-day seminars on the new curriculum. And despite the telepresences and online activities, students and teachers spent most of their time on the project reading about it, researchers found.

Following Up

Earlier this month, middle school teacher Kathryn DeCola took 77 6th graders from Holmes Middle School in Alexandria, Va., to the PIN site at the National Geographic Society's headquarters in Washington.

She and the other members of her teaching team have been talking to the students about the expedition for most of the school year, and used pieces of the Jason curriculum.

"I look for ways it will tie into social studies curriculum and language arts," Ms. DeCola said.

Some of her students, for example, read novels about survival and the ocean from the project's reading list. A colleague led students in some science experiments from the Jason curriculum.

But even though Ms. DeCola has used Jason materials for eight years, this year she regretted not having taken the teacher-training session offered at the PIN site last fall.

As a result, she said, she's not sure she prepped them enough, especially those students—fully half the group—for whom English is a second language.

And she said that a lot of the science on the broadcast was at a higher level than what many of her students were ready for.

The Holmes students followed their visit to the PIN site by making "ABC books"—a tried-and-true field-trip exercise in which cards that portray relevant words or concepts go with each letter of the alphabet.

Their in-class session of drawing, gluing, and pasting was not high-level science, but the cards show that some content sunk in.

The cards drawn by Azeem Wasim, 12, portrayed krill (a small crustacean) for K and Newton's Third Law of Motion for N, which he illustrated with a drawing of two hand-held jets.

"Each action has an equal and opposite reaction," he recited proudly.

Vol. 19, Issue 28, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: March 22, 2000, as Jason Project Adds Sense of Adventure To Learning Science
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