Case Study

Interactive High-Definition Connection Brings University Research to K-12 Schools

Published: April 20, 2010

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Strengthening U.S. STEM education - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - is a top challenge for educators and others concerned about the nation's international competitiveness.

To promote STEM education in its schools, Georgia's Barrow County, working jointly with the Georgia Institute of Technology, has established a novel program that brings higher-education instruction to K-12 students via a sophisticated high-definition (HD) videoconferencing platform. Called Direct to Discovery (D2D), the Barrow County program has already connected high-school classrooms directly to Georgia Tech teachers and researchers.

The aim is to promote student interest in the STEM disciplines by providing interactive experience with cutting-edge scientific research. Scientists and engineers from Georgia Tech and the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are providing Barrow County with technical expertise, as well as online instruction in using the HD videoconferencing system.

"Being able to receive instruction with university researchers brings an excitement into our high-school science classes that's never been there before," said Edward Morrison, director of Information Technology Services for Barrow County Schools. "The students recognize that the communications technology we're using is on the edge of the envelope. And when they walk out of the classroom something is happening that we don't see very often - they're talking about what happened in the classroom rather than what's on at the movie theater."

The Barrow County-Georgia Tech videoconferencing system consists of one or more high-definition flat-screen monitors in each location. The screens are in the 50- to 60-inch size range and capable of high-definition television video modes of 1080p or 720p.

Delivering a high-definition signal to those classroom systems generally requires a minimum bandwidth of about 2 megabits per second (Mbps), Morrison said. That hasn't been a problem, since the Barrow County Schools network is now capable of more than 150 Mbps, thanks to a unique high-speed fiber-optic connection.

In addition to highly realistic HD video, the system offers real-time audio exchange without the need for handheld microphones. Users say the audio-video equipment is soon forgotten, and participants feel as if everyone is in the same room.

A High-Fidelity Experience

"Big-screen high definition makes a major difference - the system is truly immersive," said Jud Ready, a GTRI senior research engineer who has been teaching Barrow County students using the videoconferencing system. "The major difference between me physically being in a Barrow County classroom or here at Georgia Tech is just that I'm in two dimensions there rather than three. The cameras can tilt and pan and zoom - it's a very high-fidelity experience."

The videoconferencing system has a significant amount of logic built in. For example, several people in either venue can converse together, appearing together in an on-screen grid reminiscent of Hollywood Squares. But if one speaker dominates the conversation for more than a few seconds, that person is then presented full-screen.

Working with Ready, Barrow County high-school students have been studying techniques for growing carbon nanotubes, structures that are only a few nanometers - billionths of a meter - in size. Using the videoconferencing system and online software, Barrow students can remotely use and adjust a scanning-electron microscope at Georgia Tech to view the tiny nanotubes. In addition, they can manipulate nanotube growth with a computer, adjusting gas-flow rates and other parameters in a growth furnace.

"You could say that Barrow County Schools are becoming something of a research institution at the K-12 level," Ready said. "Ultimately, students will be able to operate a growth furnace, which I doubt many other K-12 students are doing anywhere in the country. When these students reach the university level, they will already be familiar with actual research approaches and techniques."

Other Georgia Tech faculty and researchers are also offering HDTV distance instruction to Barrow County students. That roster includes Gregory Book, a senior research engineer with the Nanotechnology Research Center; Jennifer Curtis, assistant professor in the School of Physics, Michelle Dawson, assistant professor in the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Tonya Shearer, research scientist in the School of Biology.

In past months, Barrow County students have used the astronomical observatory at Georgia Tech, and also worked with the High Power Electric Propulsion Laboratory in the School of Aerospace Engineering.

The Fiber-optic Connection

The Barrow schools' high-speed signal is delivered by PeachNet, the statewide network of the University System of Georgia. Barrow County, located midway between Atlanta and Athens, is believed to be the only Georgia county that currently has true HDTV capability in its schools. Additional counties are now establishing Direct to Discovery network connections, including Ware County, Hall County and possibly DeKalb and Cobb counties. Furthermore, a school in Offaly County, Ireland, will be connected, thereby expanding international D2D connections.

The story behind Barrow's connectivity goes back several years. In the mid- 2000s, Barrow County students experienced several science and technology demonstrations by Georgia Tech researchers via a standard Internet-video hookup. Barrow teachers and administrators liked the results and wanted more.

During a trip to Georgia Tech, a Barrow County delegation met Warren Matthews of Georgia Tech's Office of Information Technology. It was Matthews who came up with the idea of connecting the county's schools to a fiber-optic Internet backbone.

As luck would have it, a high-speed backbone passes through Barrow County; the school system was able to connect to it via a short fiber-optic link at acceptable cost. The resulting connection gave the county far faster connectivity than the conventional connections used by most school systems.

"I hadn't realized just how starved the schools were for bandwidth - and most still are," said Matthews, who is now working in the United Kingdom for JANET, a research and education network there. "Ed Morrison had the vision to understand the applications that could be enabled by a high-speed connection and the potential to impact education for their students."

Among those who have also supported Barrow County's connectivity and distance-learning efforts are Ron Hutchins and Lou Zehner of the Office of Information Technology at Georgia Tech, John Scoville of PeachNet and Marshall Chambers of the Barrow schools. Georgia State University, the University of Georgia and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia have also contributed to the effort.

The Barrow County distance-learning program has received enthusiastic notice from Casey Cagle, Georgia's lieutenant governor.

"The partnership between Barrow County and Georgia Tech through technology represents the future of education in Georgia and throughout the world," Cagle said recently. "I look forward to working with them to expand their success."

Building on Foundations

Programs like Direct to Discovery build on the successes of the Foundations for the Future (F3) program that began in 1996, said Jeff Evans, a GTRI principal research engineer. Over the years, the F3 program has assisted scores of school systems throughout Georgia, including many rural schools, with design and methods for achieving Internet access at the T1 level - up to 1.5 Mbps. The program has also helped schools use Internet applications that support classroom education.

GTRI researchers are currently working with education groups in Australia, Canada and Ireland to use high-definition videoconferencing for global learning collaboration via the worldwide Internet2 network, Evans said. For instance, students in Dublin, Ireland, have been able to view the intricacies of a fly's eye through a scanning-electron microscope based at Georgia Tech.

The potential applications of such collaboration are numerous, Evans said. Students in Atlanta, for instance, can't view the night sky during school hours. Yet by videoconferencing with Australia, where it's night during Atlanta's school day, students could view Southern Hemisphere skies through a telescope there.

Collaboration between classes from different parts of the world is sure to be exciting for the students involved, Evans added. The energy produced could help increase student enthusiasm for learning.

Only time will tell if this collaborative learning technology will inspire students to choose STEM majors in college. Additional techniques are being developed for collaborative learning, particularly in virtual worlds and augmented reality, according GTRI's Jessica Pater, a F3/D2D virtual environment researcher.

For now, Evans said, experiencing university research seems to be expanding Barrow County students' interest in the sciences.

"When students can look through microscopes and can see researchers actually splitting DNA," he said, "that helps them go back to their textbooks and better understand why they're studying cell division and bonding."