Maureen Pajak’s sixth-grade science class at Mayfield Elementary School in Lapeer, Mich., is working on projects that some high school teachers might wish their students could handle.

Last fall, its project was a study of the increasing numbers of deformed frogs in the Great Lakes. This spring, it’s an examination of the properties of certain physical elements.

What makes the class even more impressive is its use of sophisticated computer tools, not as an add-on to the classroom studies, but as an essential part of how students learn. Most of the research, from frogs to elements, happens online.

Pajak’s class is part of a telementoring program funded by computer maker Hewlett-Packard (HP). The students are in contact with scientists and technicians from around the country, discussing their results.

Every child has an adult mentor somewhere in the country. The children communicate twice weekly via eMail with their mentors. They discuss the projects the students are working on, offer advice and critiques, even help with grammar.

Because Pajak’s students are using computer software like Microsoft PowerPoint to do their in-class presentations, the mentors can see what the students are up to every step of the way. Several mentors have commented that the students’ presentations are more professional than many they have seen in the course of their careers.

Kalie Lyle, 11, planned to soak copper in a petri dish with lemon juice to see if the color changed.

“I think copper is a pretty color, and you see copper every day,” she told the Detroit Free Press for an article published in March. “All you have to do is look at a penny and you see copper.”

Kalie’s mentor, Elaine May, chose her from a posting on the HP telementoring site. Kalie, like all the students in Pajak’s class, wrote a few paragraphs about herself and her interests for the mentors to read online.

They hit it off quickly, chatting about their different lifestyles (living single vs. living in a big family) and their different areas (May lives in Santa Rosa, Calif.). But mostly, they talk about Kalie’s schoolwork.

“I tell her the project that we’re doing. She gives me web sites. That way, I can look up the web sites on the computer and get pages and pages of information,” Kalie said.

May provides more than just academic help.

“We write to each other almost every day. She answers all my questions,” Kalie said. “Me and her, we share the same interests. She’s one of those people who supports whatever you do and whatever you say. When I do bad in a subject, she roots me on, saying that I have the skills to do well.”

May, a research and development manager for HP, enjoys the bond they’ve formed.

“Kalie is a really neat person and I love hearing her perspective on things,” she said.

The HP telementoring program helps students in grades 5-12 excel in math, science, and career planning. In the program’s nearly five-year history, more than 4,000 eMail relationships have been formed between HP employees and students worldwide, involving more than 400 schools in the United States, Canada, and abroad, according to the company.

Averaging two to three eMail exchanges weekly, HP mentors help students appreciate the benefits of an education by showing them how various subjects—particularly math and science—can be directly applied to actual jobs. As a result, students are more motivated to excel in these subjects, while improving their communication and problem-solving skills.

In 1998, the HP program became part of a larger electronic outreach effort directed by the International Telementor Center at Colorado State University’s Center for Science, Mathematics, & Technology Education.

Mayfield Elementary School
http://www.lapeer.lib.mi.us/Education/Schools/Mayfield/index.html

International Telementor Center
http://www.telementor.org

Hewlett-Packard telementoring site
http://www.telementor.org/hp