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From Classroom Teachers to Global Adventurers:
Using VirtualExplorers.org in the Classroom

February 2002

Accra, Ghana -- "Walking through the forest in the dark is both amazing and unnerving. There are all kinds of creatures calling but you can't see anything except the path in front of you. At one point we stopped on the trail for a moment and three of us starting shouting in pain while hopping all around. We had stopped right in the middle of a column of soldier ants." (Excerpt from the Virtual Explorers Ghana Expedition, December 2001.)

The Real Explorers Behind Virtual Explorers
About four years ago, Shelly Luke and Susan Reid were teaching at a private elementary school in Northern California -- Shelly as a fifth grade teacher and Susan as the technology resource teacher. They began talking about a travel adventure, and quickly set their sites on something real, not just an exotic location. Interest in wildlife conservation led them to the Peruvian portion of the Amazon River and the work of biologist Tamara McGuire studying rare freshwater river dolphins.

As the two prepared to join McGuire in her research, they realized that they could share their journey and the scientific data they collected online with students all over the world. The result is Virtual Explorers, a non-profit organization and web site for students and teachers that promotes and supports scientific education in project-based learning via the Internet.

Using VirtualExpedition.org in the Classroom
Luke and Reid have catalogued three expeditions on their site: in 1999 and 2000 they studied freshwater river dolphins in Peru, and in 2001 they journeyed to Ghana to study Roloway Monkeys with Lindsay Magnuson. The site provides biographies of the participants and researchers, information pages about the country and its people, a journal of the day-to-day research activity, and the raw data collected in the field.

"We wanted to ask big provocative questions," says Reid, "questions without simple answers. How do you create a conservation plan that protects the dolphins and secures the livelihood of the people who live along the river?"

The raw data offers a unique opportunity for teachers to access real results for use in practicing the scientific inquiry process. However, not many visitors have tapped into the data files. Luke and Reid believe that they need more support for teachers to use the data. They plan to partner with a teaching college and science education professionals to develop classroom activities, lessons, and activity sheets that will make the site an easier fit for classroom teachers.

Promoting Science to Girls
" The site combines teaching, wildlife management and conservation, and provides role models for girls in science, math, and technology," says Reid. "It's inline with what research says about girls and technology use. They want an outcome, they want to communicate, they want to save dolphins. We hope that by working with women scientists, we let girls know that they can do this too."

They gauge their audience by the emails that come through the site. Most response comes from girls from around the world who are interested in the research or in pursuing science careers. Many adults interested in wildlife conservation or technology adventures also use the site. They both recognize that they need to add more "scaffolding" to the site to provide teachers with more ways to use the information effectively in the classroom.

Field Technology
Luke and Reid also inspire their audience. The two women prove that you can have a dream and find a way to make it come true. Although Luke has no formal technology training, she likes to tinker and keeps the laptops, satellite phones, solar panels, and digital video and still cameras working.

"We use DreamWeaver to create the pages and transmit them via satellite phone from the jungle or the river," says Luke. "We use solar panels and batteries for power. AlphaSmart keyboards allow us to type up our stories without using as much power as a full-blown laptop."
The team tests and checks everything when they still have access to tech support, but out in the field they rely on help menus and each other to think through problems and devise solutions. The two of them talk through challenges and devise a solution.

Their advice for classroom teachers using technology
Both Luke and Reid have left the classroom and now provide professional development and support to schools and teachers. Luke has her own firm, Eyes on the Future, and Reid is the Director of Professional Development at inResonance, an educational technology consulting firm. They both see that there are challenges to integrating technology into curriculum, but these can be overcome with training and support .

In her work, Luke sees that teachers need to take technology learning one step at a time. "You can't wait to know everything," she advises. "No one knows everything. I start from the curriculum and then add technology. I work with teachers in the classroom or they learn while I teach the students." A student-centered teaching style lends itself more readily to technology integration in her experience.

Reid has two suggestions for teachers. She says: "Set one goal for yourself: this year I'm going to learn about databases or how to create an iMovie. Pick one thing and get good at it." She also recommends ISTE as a good starting place for teachers to learn more about the research related to technology use in education.

The Worldwide Classroom
Shortly after they completed their trip to Ghana, Luke and Reid began a conversation with two women research biologists for a future expedition to Belize to study manatees. To read about their previous adventures or to see where they go next, check out www.virtualexplorers.org.