Expand tax credits to companies that invest in alternative, emission-free fuel technologies; make low-interest mortgages available to homeowners who increase the energy efficiency of their homes; make recycling mandatory in all public facilities, such as schools, parks, and beaches; and include global warming and climate change in today’s school curricula–these were some of the top ideas that students worldwide came up with to address the problem of global warming in a Google-sponsored exercise that used technology as a collaborative, project-based learning tool.

In partnership with the Global SchoolNet Foundation, Google Inc. invited students from around the world to take part in a brainstorming exercise meant to call attention to a cause the company strongly believes in. The assignment also was aimed at promoting the use of Google’s free, web-based document creator, Docs and Spreadsheets, as a vehicle for online collaboration and project-based learning in schools.

More than 80 schools in 20 different countries participated in the project, Google said–and the results were published in a full-page ad that appeared in USA Today on Nov. 27.

“The concept … was to bring this specific tool to bear on a fun project that would have educational value–and on a topic that we really believe in,” said Jen Mazzon, product manager for Google Docs and Spreadsheets. “We were trying to bring attention to students’ ideas on such an important topic, as well as to highlight that they were collaborating globally while using Google Docs and Spreadsheets.”

Students at the various schools were asked to come up with ideas about how they could address the effects of global warming and what could be done to slow or prevent it. Each participating class then contributed their ideas to a spreadsheet created for their region. From those spreadsheets, Google chose the top 50 ideas, which appeared in the USA Today ad.

Because they were using a web-based application, students were able to edit the same document at the same time. This gave them the opportunity to see exactly what each person was writing, Mazzon said, which allowed them to brainstorm ideas quicker and easier.

That’s not to say students used the software without a hitch. “In one large class, students had trouble editing the same page at the same time,” said Anne Lambert, library media teacher at John Muir School in San Diego, one of the participating schools. “But once they worked through that, they could see the benefit of collaborating on the same document.”

It’s this kind of collaboration that Google aims to make possible for students and teachers alike, according to the company.

“Imagine a teacher who wants to give feedback to a student on [his or her] assignment throughout the course of [the project], rather than waiting to give a grade at the very end,” said Mazzon. “Or a student who wants to get input on something from a writing tutor, or a grandmother from a few towns away, or even a group of students who are working on a project together. These are all very common examples of areas where having really seamless ways to share documents, spreadsheets, and homework assignments online comes in handy … which is why we’ve seen a lot of adoption among students and teachers.”

Besides the ability to collaborate on documents, the software also gives users the ability to access their documents from any internet-connected computer, Mazzon says, without the need to save them to a disk or flash drive. Plus, it’s available to users free of charge.

Many of the teachers who took part in the global-warming project have shaped it to fit into their curriculum and are conducting follow-up activities, Mazzon said. Some classes have held awareness nights for their communities, built different activities around the project, and created pamphlets or coloring sheets for younger children.

Google’s global-warming project is part of a larger effort by the search-engine giant to market its entire suite of web-based solutions to educators. This project follows the debut of a new web site, www.google.com/educators, containing lesson plans and links to an array of free Google software programs teachers can use in their classes. These programs include Google Earth, SketchUp, Picasa, and Calendar. (See “Google courts schools with online tools.”) In addition, Google recently partnered with National Geographic to use Google Earth, the company’s free online mapping tool, for activities associated with Geography Awareness Week. Google again will feature Google Earth as part of exercises meant to coincide with Earth Day next spring, the company said.

Last month, Google invited about 50 Northern California teachers to spend the day at its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters to learn more about the advantages of its online software. Google reportedly plans to host similar programs in other parts of the country as it tries to recruit more teachers to proselytize its solutions.

Google is positioning its educational initiative as a public service for teachers who often lack the money and expertise to introduce more technological tools into their classrooms. But it’s more than that, according to the company. As Google tries to usher in a new era of web-based computing, the company is promoting its software applications in K-12 classrooms, where kids who have grown up with the web are more likely to experiment with different technology.

“It’s the perfect place for them to target the next generation of computer users,” said James McQuivey, a former Forrester Research analyst who is now a Boston University professor specializing in technology and communications.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Google for Educators
http://www.google.com/educators

Global Warming Student Speakout
http://www.google.com/educators/globalwarming_results.html

Global SchoolNet Foundation
http://www.globalschoolnet.org