School buses and other vehicles are being equipped with wireless internet access in an emerging trend that has enormous implications for students. Proponents of the trend say wireless connectivity on buses could turn what is often a dull ride into another opportunity for learning.

In one example of this trend, a Vanderbilt University professor is helping rural students with long commutes to school by turning their buses into mobile classrooms. Students will be able to download lessons from the internet via cell-phone towers.

Billy Hudson, a professor of medicine and biochemistry, got inspiration for the project from his own childhood in rural Arkansas.

He said he never took a science or math class in high school and dropped out after 11th grade, planning to work on a cotton plantation until he was old enough to join the Army. But his life changed when a teacher intervened, arranging for him to take summer classes at a small college in a distant town.

Children in his hometown of Grapevine, Ark., still are so isolated that, for some, the bus ride between their homes and school lasts 90 minutes each way. But Hudson plans to turn those long hours to the students’ advantage by using technology to give them science and math instruction while they ride.

Hudson returned to his hometown recently to launch a three-year pilot study of what he calls the Aspirnaut Initiative.

In a ceremony at their school, participating students received video iPods they will use to view educational videos and podcasts. A select group of 15 students received laptop computers that will allow them to have a back-and-forth exchange with Vanderbilt professors who are designing individualized lessons for them.

In one test of the system, a videoconference connected researchers in Nashville at Hudson’s Vanderbilt laboratory to the ceremony in Arkansas. Hudson gave a quick virtual tour of the lab to the group of fidgeting students, all dressed in white T-shirts with the Aspirnaut motto: “Aspire. Seek. Achieve.”

“We can be doing experiments there and talking with the children live,” Hudson explained during the videoconference. “Two Nobel laureates have endorsed this program, and they both said we need to get children engaged in the real world of science.”

The idea is not only to improve rural education, but also to counter the decreasing number of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers the country produces by inspiring students with a dynamic curriculum, he said.

While not a school initiative, Chattanooga, Tenn., buses will provide free wireless internet access by this fall, a move aimed partly at filling seats.

“People very well may say, ‘Hey, if I can sit on the bus and do work to and from home, that gives me an extra hour of time I can use productively, other than driving,'” said Tom Dugan, executive director of the Chattanooga Area Regional Transit Authority (CARTA).

CARTA officials plan to launch the wireless access on at least three-fourths of its bus routes this fall. The Wi-Fi system is part of CARTA’s long-term plan to turn its buses into “intelligent transportation systems,” vehicles that rely on computers–not people–to gather and distribute information.

Jill Veron, CARTA’s director of planning, said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga students have asked for wireless access on buses.

“I think a lot of the commuters would like to have access to the internet,” she said. “We’re going to really promote it and just use it as a trial to see how it’s accepted.”

A system that allows passengers to access the internet on a vehicle’s video screens also could have interesting implications for school buses nationwide.

Launched in September by Middletown, R.I.-based KVH Industries, TracNet brings the internet to the installed screens in a car, truck, RV, or boat. It also turns the entire vehicle into a wireless hot spot, so passengers can use their laptops to go online.

If installed on school buses, students could use the internet to do homework or research projects.

KVH officials say they plan to market TracNet to school districts–for installation on school buses–in late 2007 or early 2008. In the meantime, the company is marketing TracNet to parents as a back-seat educational tool for children.