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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Access Excellence: An Ideal Collaboration

Technology fosters online teacher exchanges.
By Pamela Peters

A teacher in Omaha, Nebraska, is asked by her school's administrators to explore the potential benefits and pitfalls of using nontraditional blocks of time to schedule classes at the high school level. A teacher in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, wants to demonstrate normal population distributions of human genetic characteristics such as height or handedness. A teacher in Corpus Christi, Texas, is interested in the use of portfolios as a way to assess students' achievement and progress. And a fourth teacher wants to acquaint her students with the thought processes that practicing research scientists use to address scientific questions.

The common thread that draws each of these four teachers together is the need to exchange information, both with their colleagues and with research scientists. After all, what better way to explore block scheduling or the use of portfolios than to discuss it with teachers who are actually using these systems? And it simply is not possible to demonstrate normal population distributions if you are limited to the thirty or so data points that can be determined by the thirty or so students in a typical classroom.

Access Excellence (AE) is designed to help answer these kinds of questions. As a program developed and sponsored by Genentech, Inc., a leading biotechnology company in California, AE impacts the way that science is taught in today's classrooms through the use of the World Wide Web.

By making scientific information available in ways that aren't limited by physical accessibility, AE is helping to break down the isolation of the classroom. Students and teachers are able to glimpse science as it is practiced and, in many cases, take an active role in a scientific research project, such as AE Telegenetics, which allows students nationwide to share genetic information.

Teachers can also exchange ideas about teaching with their colleagues, and they can communicate directly with accomplished research scientists despite hundreds or thousands of miles of geographic separation.

Through AE, teachers have been able to chat online with Dr. Don Francis about HIV and other emerging diseases, and teachers working with PCR (polymerase chain reaction -- the technique that is used to magnify tiny bits of material into larger quantities and that plays such an important role in DNA analysis and forensic medicine) in the classroom have been connected directly to experts who can answer questions about the details which make or break a project. For example: "Exactly what temperature will work best?" Or, "Where can I purchase that particular length of DNA?"

The Access Excellence WWW forum helps to make all of this possible with a variety of resources. They include online classes and seminars, accessible and obtainable libraries of ideas and activities designed specifically for the classroom, daily and weekly updates on current happenings in the world of science research, bulletin board-style exchanges of ideas on a wide variety of topics -- and more!

As manager of science education for AE, I am responsible for the overall content and the quality of scientific information presented in the AE WWW program. I help identify the topics which will be discussed in the online forum, write original course materials on a wide variety of topics, and work directly with research scientists to convert incisive information into formats that are most useful to the high school classroom.

I am also AE's "bioeditor." In this challenging position, I answer questions on almost any aspect of science submitted through the online forum. Answers generally include information on where appropriate resources might be found both online and off. I believe strongly that the most valuable "answers" that AE can provide are those which direct students and teachers to resources that allow them to discover their own answers.

Another aspect of my role at AE is to facilitate online seminars. I help teachers take cutting-edge information and translate it for classroom use. Each month we tackle a new topic, such as leeches, therapeutic applications of toxin molecules, issues of science and religion for the biology teacher, and how the eye works. In each case, participants have access to background information, activities designed for the classroom, resource lists and -- perhaps most important -- access to a practicing expert in the field.

Online Teachers' Lounge

Also offered is an online way for teachers to get together and exchange ideas about teaching. AE's Teachers' Lounge makes what was once possible only at professional conventions, available electronically. Whether you have been teaching science for three months or thirty years, you've probably had the experience of wishing for new ideas when you approach a particular topic. We also offer an online library of ideas for science teachers called the Activities Exchange. Containing over 250 activities, this library is built by participating teachers, and grows by the week!

Online Classes

In addition to the online seminars and the library of ideas, we are pioneering a partnership with the University of California at San Diego to provide online science classes for teachers. This is very helpful to teachers who must obtain continuing education credits for teacher certification and to keep up with the latest developments in the fast-paced world of scientific research. These classes are available on the WWW and taught by university faculty. All class information and assignments are posted online. Classroom discussions, facilitated by the instructor, take place in an online bulletin board environment. The first online course, offered in fall 1995, examined the scientific basis of nutrition and was partly funded by a grant from Mars, Inc.

An Invitation

These are just a few examples of what is available through AE. I'd like to invite you to visit the AE online forum and see what a great mix of technology and teaching private industry is making available to the students of today and to the scientists of tomorrow.

Pamela Peters was manager of science education at Access Excellence at Genentech, Inc., when she wrote this article in 1996.

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