The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) is helping to usher in a new age in school textbooks. The organization has teamed with publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston to introduce sciLINKS, a program that will direct students from the pages of their textbooks to applicable information on the internet.

NSTA announced the new initiative during its annual conference, held in Boston March 25-27, where U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley helped unveil two new science textbooks that provide links to web pages through special access codes in the margins.

“I’m excited about this,” Riley told conference attendees. “Imagine the excitement of a child who studies about the solar system and then goes online to learn about the Mars Pathfinder Mission.”

Though not the first school books to provide internet addresses for further study, organizers say the sciLINKS program is the first to establish a web site and search tool exclusively for textbook links. sciLINKS also will ensure that links stay fresh and up-to-date long after the textbook is published.

Here’s how the program works: Instead of showing actual web addresses for applicable links, the textbooks provide five-digit codes that, when entered into the online sciLINKS search tool, point students and teachers to pre-approved, relevant, and age-appropriate web sites that support the particular science subject being addressed in the text.

Holt is the first to participate in sciLINKS. The company has agreed to publish codes in its Holt Environmental Science and Holt Chemistry Visualizing Matter textbooks. Holt also has agreed to maintain and refresh the access codes for 15 years and said it will include sciLINKS codes in future titles as well.

Holt’s parent company, Harcourt Brace, also has signed a contract to incorporate sciLINKS into its new elementary series called Harcourt Science.

NSTA continues to negotiate with other publishers as well, the organization said.

The sciLINKS web site was developed with technical help from NASA, which also provided a $210,000 grant to research the feasibility of the project.

Eliminating searches

Seeing the textbook for the first time during the NSTA conference, science teacher Richard Guzowski said he likes the idea of enabling students to research textbook topics on the internet, adding that he has always emphasized current events in his classroom.

Guzowski, who teaches environmental science at Springfield High School in Massachusetts, said some of his students have already tried to find information on the internet on their own, but have found searching the open internet for a specific topic difficult.

A 1997 study conducted by the NEC Research Institute found that there were at least 320 million pages of indexable web pages at the time. A separate study conducted by MCI Corp. shows that 92 percent of the teachers polled said the internet is an important classroom tool, and almost the same number said they would like to use the web to teach core subjects.

“Teachers are spending valuable time scouring the internet for quality and timely materials to support their classroom teaching,” remarked NSTA Executive Director Gerry Wheeler. “sciLinks allows them to rely on our team of educators to do the searching for them and gives them a way of bringing today’s late-breaking news into the classroom.”

Teams of professional educators and curriculum specialists are involved in selecting and maintaining textbook links to key sites on the internet. NSTA and the publisher review the textbook to decide which locations would be most appropriate for links.

At the same time, a team of off-site “Web Watchers” scan the internet in search of subject-based sites. Sites are chosen and rated based on predetermined criteria and are then reviewed by a second team of educators to narrow down the selections to the best ones.

A team of classroom teachers serves as a review committee, continually assessing sciLINKS web pages and offering feedback on the program. Meanwhile, NSTA continues seeking out the newest, most up-to-date web sites to add to the system.

NSTA uses a variety of criteria to evaluate a web site, placing a priority on those that enhance the learning experience and aid in the understanding of science concepts. Among the criteria NSTA looks at are audience, content, accuracy, objectivity, quality of writing, and timeliness. The organization also looks for sites that are unique and visually interesting, contain opportunities for interactivity, and are convenient and intuitive to use.

The program is free to students, teachers, and parents who use participating sciLINKS textbooks. Web sites can be used for both in-class instruction and independent student exploration, and NSTA plans to add sites specifically for home use by parents as the system grows.

NSTA said sciLINKS will also provide links to subject-specific television programming provided by Cable in the Classroom.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston