Thanks to a partnership with nearby research universities, students at Georgia’s Barrow County Schools have used a high-definition video link to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta to control cameras and view images of sea life remotely from their classrooms; learned calculus from Georgia Tech instructors using a "virtual whiteboard" application; and interacted with researchers on the ocean floor near Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary just off Sapelo Island, Ga., among other activities.

Barrow County is one of several K-12 school districts that have teamed up with member universities belonging to the ultra high-speed Internet2 network, giving them access to this advanced higher-education research network and the many opportunities for learning that it affords.

Barrow County’s participation in the network "has increased our bandwidth by 500 percent," said Superintendent Ron Saunders, "and that has allowed us to … deliver a world-class education to our students."

With an average speed of 100 gigabits per second, Internet2 supports even the most bandwidth-heavy research projects and group collaborations, such as high-definition video conferencing, telemedicine, and tele-immersion, or shared virtual reality.

Participation in the Internet2 network was expanded to include K-12 schools a decade ago. As of last year, nearly 4,300 K-12 school districts were connected to the network, and this number has been climbing slowly but steadily each year, said Greg Wood, director of communications for the Internet2 initiative.

At the Consortium for School Networking’s annual conference in March, Internet2 participants discussed some of the projects they are involved with.

"Imagine the difference between dial-up and broadband in terms of speed," said Larry Gallery, membership manager for the New York State Education and Research Network (NYSERNet). "Now, imagine that dial-up is the internet and broadband is Internet2. … That’s how much of a difference there is."

Gallery described a project from the National Library of Medicine, called the Visible Human Project, that has created complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies. As an outgrowth of this project, the University of Michigan has created two- and three-dimensional navigational browsers through which students can take a virtual tour of the human body over an Internet2 connection.

"Students can see what eating a cheeseburger does to your circulation," explained Gallery. "It’s like nothing else they’ve seen before."

Heather Weisse, applications coordinator for MAGPI (Mid-Atlantic GigaPoP in Philadelphia for Internet2) at the University of Pennsylvania, said video conferencing is another useful application of Internet2.

For example, Project Lemonade is an international collaboration that has provided a real-world context for practicing a second language. According to Weisse, it has helped promote cultural sympathy, understanding, and exchange, while preparing students for a global society.

Another Internet2 application is virtual surgery, where a real surgeon wears a mini-camera on his or her head and students can follow the procedures of open-heart surgery, knee surgery, and so on.

"This access to experts can help make complex concepts accessible, can let students move beyond theory, and can provide a voice of authority on the subject," said Weisse. "Traveling virtually allows for no-cost field trips, a total immersion experience, and great curricular supplements. It also provides differentiated instruction."

To take part in the Internet2 network, K-12 schools first must form partnerships with any of the 206 member universities. Saunders said his district’s partnerships with Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia, and other schools have not only brought greater bandwidth–they’ve also enhanced teacher development.

"With Georgia Tech, and with the many other universities that we’ve partnered with, they’re all very willing to give their time to help us develop and integrate our Internet2 curriculum," he explained. "Universities have also helped us provide teacher professional development, and it’s really blurring the lines between K-12 and higher education."

Barrow County began its Internet2 participation with only two schools, connecting them through PeachNet, the state’s education network, with the help of ADVA Optical Networking. Now, as of this fall, all locations within the district will have high-speed connections to the network.

Of course, to take advantage of Internet2’s bandwidth-intensive applications, districts will need a robust network infrastructure to bring these applications into classrooms. Barrow County has leased Ethernet connections from the Internet2 hub site in Winder, Ga., to each of its schools, and these eventually will provide Gigabit Ethernet service to all of the school sites.

To help promote the many Internet2 projects in its curriculum, Barrow County hosted "Splash Day" at Westside Middle School in Winder back in January, during which teachers gave classroom presentations on their projects.

"We’ve found that kids are glued to the Internet2 presentations, and participation is at a high. We’re trying to get them interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], and this seems like a great way to do it," said Saunders.

Barrow County officials called the event "Splash Day" because they believe one event can ripple throughout the community.

Amy Rary, a sixth-grade reading and language arts teacher at Westside Middle School, said Internet2 "is a tool that keeps me growing, learning, and evolving as a teacher. … To see and hear from people around the country or world is a priceless opportunity. I believe it really opens up the doors to … what the future can hold for students."

Links:

Barrow Country Schools

Internet2

Muse (connects Internet2 users with other projects and members around the globe)

Database of Internet2 programs and activities (search for "Internet2" under keyword search)

ADVA Optical Networking

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Minimizing Classroom Distruptions resource center. Computers and the internet have become welcome instructional tools in most schools, ushering a wealth of additional resources into today’s classrooms. Unfortunately, they also bring with them the potential for unwanted distractions–such as online content that ranges from off-target, to inappropriate, material. Go to: Minimizing Classroom Disruptions