Virtual Mission to Antarctica Enhances High School Science: Big Signal Web Site Allows Students to Follow Nomad in its Search for Meteorites

Science students in three Pennsylvania high schools accompanied a Robotics Institute research team on a two-week-long mission to Antarctica late last year. Well, virtually speaking, that is.

By surfing the innovative "Big Signal" Web site created by a team of five information interaction specialists at the Robotics Institute, students at nearby Keystone Oaks and Fox Chapel Area high schools and Susquehannock High School in Glen Rock, Pa., followed and studied Nomad, Carnegie Mellon's autonomous planetary rover, during its search for meteorites on the frozen continent in late November and early December.

Through the three-dimensional Web site, which was also available at several public libraries in Allegheny County, students were able to see Antarctica through the eyes of Nomad's 360-degree panospheric camera. They also learned how the robot moved and how its many different systems operated, such as its radar sensor, high resolution digital camera, reflection spectrometer and expandable chassis.

The research team in Antarctica sent images of their work to the Web site for students and teachers to view. The research team included acclaimed Antarctic meteorite explorer William Cassidy, a professor of geology and planetary science at the University of Pittsburgh, and planetary scientists from NASA.

"We're especially proud of the images sent back by Pacal Lee, a planetary scientist from the NASA Ames Research Center, who was conducting rock analyses," said Alexi Morrissey, a Big Signal team member. "After cutting some rocks, he sent back video of the pieces turning under a microscope. That really grabbed the kids' attention." Lee also sent his written analysis of the rocks to the Web site to help students interpret the graphic images.

The Web site was used by teachers to enhance instruction of basic high school concepts in geology, astronomy, physics and earth science. A "classroom" link that contained assignments for the students to complete was created by the participating teachers. The link permitted students to access their assignments online and allowed teachers who were not involved in the pilot project to see how the mission related to their science curriculum.

The classroom assignments met the state science and technology standards.

"In order to make the project meet the state standards it had to be real and sustainable," Morrissey said. "It couldn't just be this glossy utopian view of robotics in outer space. It had to relate to topics that teachers have to teach, like strength of materials, gravity and the difference between sedimentary rocks and other types of rocks.

"The goal of the program was to interest students in robotics and to bring its concepts into the classroom where they're taught by professional educators as part of the curriculum. We're not advocating technology, per se, we're advocating the use of new concepts to teach old ones."

Keystone Oaks teacher Charles Rodkey was able to use the Big Signal Web site as a teaching enhancement in several of his classes.

"In my astronomy class we discussed the origin of meteorites, where they came from and why they hit the earth," Rodkey explained "In my earth and science class we looked at the continent of Antarctica and the content of the meteorite. We studied the petrology of the rock."

Rodkey said the Web site "hooked" his students' interest.

"It gave students a chance to use the technology, an opportunity to work in small groups or on their own, and a chance to discuss timely science concepts and topics," he said. "There's a sexiness to robotics that really appealed to the students."

Nomad's next trip to Antarctica to search for meteorites is planned for next January. Morrissey said he and his colleagues - Peter Coppin, Dawn Lambeth, Bob Nametska, Mike Wagner and Angela Zacchero - plan to gather input from Big Signal participants to assist them in publishing another Web site that will be used in additional schools.

The Big Signal Project was funded by the Robotics Institute, the Howard Heinz Endowment, the Grable Foundation, the Frick Fund of the Buhl Foundation and the Electronic Information Network.

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