Zoo’s computing project bears notice

School field trips could get a whole lot more exciting, if a program being launched by the Brookfield Zoo proves successful.

The Chicago-based zoo is creating a Tablet PC program in conjunction with the Chicago Public Schools to provide a more accessible educational experience for students with disabilities.

Before, during field trips to the Brookfield Zoo, students would use pencils and paper to make animal observations and were limited to the information their own class gathered. But now students can use a Motion Computing M1300 Tablet PC–distributed by the zoo–to record their observations.

First, students will learn how to use the three-pound, 12-inch screen Tablet PCs. Then, they will observe animal behavior and enter the data they collect into the device.

“Because our students must carry their supplies as they walk through the zoo to complete their assignments, ultra-mobile technology is important to the success of our program,” said Ann Roth, Brookfield Zoo’s access coordinator and manager of the “Every Student is a Scientist” project.

With Tablet PCs, students can adjust the computers’ sound and images based on their needs. For example, the device includes a Microsoft Magnifier application, speech recognition software, and a customized narrative audio program so it can magnify the text displayed on the screen, read that text aloud, or convert audio portions of the program to text.

The results will be copied to the zoo’s server and made available to teachers so they can use the materials when they return to the classroom. Because the data are digitized and available online, teachers can look at their own classrooms’ and other schools’ aggregate data in different slices to identify trends and apply the information to other activities, zoo officials said.

Microsoft and regional systems integrator Quilogy are sponsoring the Brookfield Zoo project, which is funded by a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.

See these related links:

Brookfield Zoo
http://www.brookfieldzoo.org

Motion Computing
http://www.motioncomputing.com

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Schools turn to web for suicide prevention aid

Faced with a growing number of student suicides, some schools are trying to combat the trend by offering depressed students the anonymity of the internet to seek mental health counseling.

More than 80 universities have signed up so far for Ulifeline.org, which provides students with an anonymous and nonthreatening link to their schools’ mental health centers for information, counseling, or to schedule appointments.

At the same time, the free program gives universities the chance to help ailing students by using a favorite tool: the internet.

“It’s a tragic element of college life that suicide is part of it,” said Peter Likins, president of the University of Arizona. “Often times, people in depression are not able to go to mental health services that are available on campuses. They’re embarrassed. [But] some of these youngsters may be willing to explore on the internet and get some anonymous feedback.”

The suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has tripled since the 1950s, and now stands at 9.9 deaths per 100,000 people.

Ulifeline.org is designed as a template that can be customized to the needs of any college or university to reflect the programs and policies of its mental health center. The site provides universities with a free resource for bringing existing mental health services to their student population and complements, rather than replaces, the mental health information students already receive, the site’s creators say.

In addition, Ulifeline’s “Go Ask Alice!” service reportedly answers about 1,500 mental health questions a week from college and high school students, parents, teachers, older adults, and others.

A mental health and drug information library also is available to students through a resource called IntelliHealth, which features the consumer health information of Harvard Medical School. More than 150 health care organizations contribute to the breadth of its content, which is reviewed for accuracy by medical professionals, according to the site’s creators.

Finally, software developed at Duke University allows Ulifeline users to be screened for various categories of depression. The Duke Diagnostic Psychiatry Screening Program provides valuable direction to both students and counselors and links to a professional contact within the university health-care community.

The diagnostic tool is not meant to take the place of an evaluation by a physician or mental health professional. However, a positive result suggests that the student would benefit from comprehensive mental health screening, according to the site.

The web site is one of several programs offered by the Jed Foundation, which was created by Phil and Donna Satow after their 20-year-old son Jed took his own life in 1998 by hanging himself.

Phil Satow said the internet is the perfect medium to teach the current generation of students about the signs of depression. Realizing they missed those signs has been difficult for Jed’s friends to live with, he said.

“That’s what’s been so devastating for them,” Satow said. “That’s one of the reasons they felt this web site was so important.”

Jay Zimmerman, the associate director of Ball State’s counseling center, said the web site can help eliminate the stigma associated with mental health disorders.

“The more students who access our web site, the more information they have, the more likely they are to get help or get help for their friends,” he said. “And, the more likely they are to lead happier, healthier lives.”

See this related link:

Ulifeline.org
http://www.Ulifeline.org

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Ten tips that will improve your eRate outlook this year

Across the United States, educators are looking forward to participating in the coming eRate funding year with an eagerness normally reserved for root canals and colonoscopies. Although the program admittedly can be complex, you can ease your workload and reduce funding anxieties by following these 10 simple suggestions.

1. Start early.

If you’re reading this and haven’t filed a Form 470, get going, at least for your basic services. Though the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) establishes a window for filing funding requests, the Form 470 can be filed any time. Waiting until the last minute increases the possibility for mistakes, so do it now. If there are additions or changes later, you can file additional forms.

2. File electronically.

Though many participants complain about various aspects of the eRate program, few can deny that its online filing process is easy and reliable. The ability to save incomplete documents allows you to populate forms with basic information on your district and fill in other information as it becomes available. What makes online filing even better is that the online form cannot be submitted without certain information fields filled in. That means when you successfully submit your form, it meets the minimum processing standards established by the SLD. That’s especially important if you’re filing close to a deadline.

3. Certify immediately.

All of the online forms need to be certified after submission, either using a personal identification number (PIN) assigned to you or with an original signature on paper. We advise clients to apply for a PIN, but whichever way you go, do it immediately. Wait a day, and you’ll forget about it as your regular job closes back in around you.

4. List someone from your school or district as the contact person on your Form 470.

As consultants, we appear as the listed contact for most forms and for audits and reviews, but we always advise our client schools to list themselves on their Form 470.

There are two reasons for this. The first is pretty obvious: The school district is the best source of information about the specific telecommunications needs it has listed on the form. The second reason is that it prevents a school from inadvertently listing someone who is either a service provider or is linked to a service provider as the contact, which is a sure-fire way to get rejected (see box at right).

So why not list your eRate consultant on the Form 470? From our viewpoint, we provide expertise in the eRate process and have no business being involved in any purchasing deliberations other than answering eligibility questions and ensuring compliance. Keeping our name off the Form 470 keeps us out of the bidding and selection process.

5. Check your Form 470 before you sign a contract.

You might hear very faint–but blood-curdling–screams each summer and wonder where they come from. We can tell you. They come from superintendents across the United States whose funding requests were denied because they signed a contract less than 28 days after filing their Form 470. And don’t say, “How dumb can you get?” It happens all the time.

Before you sign any contracts, make sure the 28-day posting period for Form 470 has elapsed. An easy way to do this is to check your Form 470 as it appears on the SLD’s web site. It will state the earliest date you can sign a contract for items listed on that form. It’s there for the vendor to see, too, but your salesperson might forget this in his anxiety to have you sign so he can use his commission check for a Boxster down payment.

6. Gather documentation materials beforehand.

Before you file a funding request, do your homework and assemble the documentation for that request. Make notes on how you got the request figure if it’s not exactly what is on the bill; it’s probably going to be six months before your request is reviewed, and you’ll need something to jog your memory.

Taking a wild guess and figuring that it will all get sorted out during the review process is a recipe for disaster. Overestimate the figure, and you’ll get denied because an excessive amount of the request was ineligible or because you were unable to provide documentation to justify the request. The same goes for expenses that are clearly ineligible: Get rid of them up front. You’ll sleep better–and fare better in the review.

7. Take advantage of the RAL grace period.

The SLD issues a Receipt Acknowledgment Letter (RAL) to let you know that your Form 471 has been certified and accepted by the agency. You have three weeks from the RAL issue date to change basic information in the form, correct errors made by the SLD, change funding categories, and lower (but not raise) the dollar amounts you’ve requested.

If you did sloppy work putting together a Form 471, you can correct many of your most egregious errors during this time. Unfortunately, most people are so glad to have the forms submitted on time that they don’t take advantage of this grace period; later, after getting a funding denial, they wish they had.

8. Keep it together.

One funding year requires a lot of paperwork, and it helps if you can keep it together. At eRate Consulting Services, we use something called a Classification Folder. It looks like a file folder, but it has six “pages” with metal prongs for holding two-hole punched paper. You can use each page for a different form and related correspondence. Keeping everything for a particular funding year in one place–forms, correspondence, and documentation–makes it easy to locate what you need, even if it’s from a previous funding year.

9. Use the SLD’s web site.

It’s a well-organized source of information and tools, where you can learn the daily status of your Form 471, file a Form 486 online, or read an in-depth paper on wide-area network eligibility. The SLD also can answer your questions by eMail or telephone. Use these resources to gather information and reduce your work time.

10. Use someone like us.

If you’ve read these tips and still feel that eRate processing makes your brain hurt–or that you’re genetically unable to file forms more than 10 minutes before deadline–hire an eRate consultant to help you. You’ll reduce your workload and avoid unpleasant surprises at funding time.

Bob and Georgia Morrow are a husband-and-wife team who handle client schools for eRate Consulting Services LLC, an Atlanta-based company that provides consulting services to both applicants and service providers. Bob spent 31 years with BellSouth, while Georgia has handled provisioning duties for a number of telephone and internet firms, including Earthlink predecessor Mindspring.

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Librarians do slightly better than Google at finding information

Do your students have questions they need answered for a research assignment or other school project? Cornell University reference librarians say they do slightly better getting answers than researchers for Google’s pay service.

The university compared its free eMail reference service with Google Answers (http://answers.google.com/answers), a research service created by operators of the popular search engine. For fees starting at $2.50, Google users can submit questions to a pool of more than 500 freelance researchers. Google says someone can usually answer questions within 24 hours.

In the Cornell study, 24 questions–ranging from the population of Afghanistan (about 26 million) to where Geoffrey Chaucer died (London)–were submitted to reference staff at the Ithaca, N.Y., university and to Google Answers. University librarians graded the responses without knowing in advance which team had submitted them.

The study found librarians faring better overall, but by such a small margin that researchers said there was no clear winner.

Authors cautioned that their small study, published in the June issue of D-Lib Magazine, was more exploratory than scientific. But they said it provided potential lessons about how the commercial sector handles reference services.

Susan Wojcicki, director of product management for Google, said the company was flattered to be included in the study.

“As this study reveals, Google Answers is another helpful, effective resource to individuals to find hard-to-get information,” she said.

Nancy Skipper, co-chair of Cornell University Reference Services (http://campusgw.library.cornell.edu/services/ask.html), said that while the university’s service is free, it gives priority to people in the Cornell community. Librarians do try to answer every query received, she said–but time doesn’t always allow this.

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Technology high on Dean’s list

Howard Dean should forget about politics. If his presidential aspirations don’t materialize, he could make a fortune in eMarketing.

He’s managed to do something that Amazon.com and dozens of big-name retailers haven’t, and that’s make money online. He’s also figured out how to use the web and its unique set of communications tools to rally support and spur direct action at the local level.

His web site, Dean for America, is worth checking out, as it provides a virtual textbook on state-of-the-art interactivity and smart content.

You can listen to a phone call, view campaign photographs and interviews, watch a video, organize a neighborhood meeting, find out about local events, download a contact sheet and script, contribute money, buy a Dean t-shirt, or join the campaign–all with just a click or two.

Even if Dean’s policies and proposals give you the willies, his “Grassroots Organizing School” is worth investigating. It provides one of the best primers for community outreach I’ve seen in any format, let alone on the web.

This “school” is actually a series of eight online modules, each focusing on a particular strategy for mobilizing support: how to reach out in your community (and who to talk to), how to approach people with your message, how to get to know your stakeholders (and what they value), how to “get out the vote,” how to plan and organize outreach events, and so on. There’s even a list of talking points and guidelines for how to respond to questions and challenges.

Education advocates would be wise to take notes, whether they’re trying to get parents engaged in their children’s education, highlight issues, organize support for a bond issue, or promote school board candidates.

School foundation leaders, grant writers, and fundraisers, meanwhile, might want to replicate the Dean campaign’s electronic newsletter and the easy-to-use, secure contributions and referrals functions of its web site.

Many of today’s time-pressed parents, especially dual-income professionals, would appreciate the opportunity to contribute to their children’s schools without having to foist wrapping paper, candy, magazine subscriptions, and restaurant coupon books on their unsuspecting neighbors and co-workers–many of whom are peddling the same stuff for their own kids.

Dean’s cost-effective, web-based strategy seems to be working. Dean for America already has raised more than $14.8 million in a single quarter, outstripping all other Democrats, including tech-savvy former President Clinton, whose frequently maligned fundraising database was the stuff of legends.

Bloggers (web-based self-publishers and diarists) will love Dean’s “Meetup” function, which connects Dean aficionados across the country with other like-minded activists on the first Wednesday of every month.

So far, more than 120,000 Dean supporters have signed up, according to the web site’s tally, which is updated continuously.

Like many Americans, I haven’t made up my mind whom I’m going to support in the primaries, let alone in next year’s general election.

And I’m not going to predict the winner. Too much hinges on the economy, Iraq, terrorism, and other volatile issues.

One thing I am certain of, however, is that the Dean for America group is on to something very powerful, and both politics and public relations might never be the same.

See these related links:

Dean for America
http://www.deanforamerica.com

Grassroots Organizing School
http://school.deanforamerica.com

Blogger (free web publishing utility)
http://www.blogger.com

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

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“Smithsonian Education” crafts lessons from the nation’s rich stores of cultural treasures

The Smithsonian Institution has launched a new educational web site where students and teachers can go to explore the findings and artifacts of all 16 Smithsonian museums, as well as the National Zoo and the Smithsonian’s many world-class research centers. The site contains nearly 1,000 educational resources searchable by both grade level and subject area. For educators, SmithsonianEducation.org provides resources to plan, prepare, and teach hundreds of lessons focused on a wide variety of subjects–from history and culture to science and technology. All lessons are correlated with national education standards. “Explore, Discover, and Learn,” the web site’s highly interactive student section, includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum complex, as well as historical information about its collections and book lists intended to help students continue their research after school hours. Thinking of taking a field trip to the nation’s capital? The site’s family section offers all sorts of ideas for fun and educational things to do while in town.

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Chart the past–and present–of geographic exploration with this site commemorating Lewis and Clark

Commemorating 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on their pioneering expedition throughout North America, ESRI, a maker of geographic information systems (GIS) software, has developed a new web site called “Lewis and Clark 200.” The site provides an introduction to modern techniques of exploration, as well as a detailed history of mapmaking–from the tools first used by the famous pair’s Corps of Discovery to more recent cartographic methods such as GIS, a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing places and events. What’s more, the web site offers many resources for geographic study, including classroom learning guides and links to Lewis and Clark maps and journals. The expedition and its bicentennial commemoration provide an evocative starting-off point for students interested in the study of geography, as well as an opportunity to use technology to understand changing environments. Today, geographic technologies are used to pinpoint the location of people, define landscape features, carefully manage the use of resources, and plan for sustainable development, according to the site.

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“BritainUSA 4 Kids” captures what life is like for students across the pond

American students can experience what it’s like to live in the United Kingdom using this new web site from the British government. “BritainUSA 4 Kids” is loaded with historical and cultural resources designed to teach young learners about British life. This interactive web site includes a picture gallery where students can explore medieval castles and famous British landmarks, a timeline dedicated to the rich history of the U.K., and information on sports and fashion, as well as useful resources for both students and teachers. Teaching a lesson on World War II? The site’s History pages offer a British perspective on what life was like for children during the war. For multimedia classroom projects, try downloading images from the Picture Gallery. This extensive archive contains the latest photos of historical buildings and popular places in Britain, as well as images of the Royal Family.

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Learn how to instill good habits with this computer recycling web site

From Dell Inc. and the National Recycling Coalition (NRC) comes a new program designed to raise awareness of computer disposal issues and help consumers rid themselves of unwanted equipment. The initiative, which began Oct. 10, is a follow-up to the company’s recent 15-city National Dell Recycling Tour, which collected nearly 2 million pounds of used computer equipment this past spring and summer. Through this latest endeavor, Dell hopes to share what it learned during the tour with university and community recycling coordinators, empowering them to conduct future collection events in their own communities as a means of environmentally responsible recycling. The NRC web site provides all sorts of resources to promote more responsible computer recycling. As part of the partnership, Dell and NRC also have developed a best-practices guide, part of an outreach toolkit they plan to release soon on a national scale.

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Track and compare each state’s progress toward NCLB compliance with this online database

This site, courtesy of the Education Commission of the States, is billed as a “one-stop shop” for determining just how close schools nationwide are to meeting the demands of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The NCLB Database offers access to a range of information regarding the progress of all 50 states toward satisfactory federal compliance. Information in the database reflects state laws, departmental regulations, board rules, directives, and practices related to 40 requirements across seven major sections of the legislation–and it’s all up to date. The data, compiled by ECS researchers in conjunction with state policy makers and their staff members, will be updated frequently as policies change, the site’s creators say. The database allows administrators and other education stakeholders to access comparative data, allowing them to gauge the progress of their own states compared with others around the nation. The site also contains important advocacy information ranging from election issues to political data.

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