URI, Smithfield School Dept. give students live access to oceanographic research

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Smithfield High is first school in world with console linking students to scientists at sea

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. – February 20, 2007 – Students at Smithfield High School will join a team of researchers led by marine explorer Robert Ballard on an expedition to the Gulf of Mexico in March, but they’ll do so without leaving the classroom.

Thanks to a partnership between the Office of Marine Programs at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography and the Smithfield School Department, in cooperation with the Northern Rhode Island Collaborative, a high-tech science console consisting of three, 46-inch plasma screens and an advanced telecommunications system has been installed at the school, enabling students and teachers to interact in real time with scientists at sea.

To kick off the partnership, Ballard and Scowcroft will meet at Smithfield High School with a group of invited guests, including leading education officials and legislators from throughout the state, as well as key personnel in Smithfield, on Thursday, Feb. 22 at 10:30 a.m. They will discuss the new Smithfield/URI ocean science research and education partnership, the new technology, the Flower Garden Banks expedition, future expeditions, and Ballard’s vision of how scientific research can be linked with ocean literacy for kindergarten through grade 12 students. Media are invited to cover the meeting.

Smithfield High School is the first school in the world to have the same science console as is used at URI’s Inner Space Center.

“This is an exciting and unique opportunity to connect scientific research with K-12 science curricula so students can experience the research and interact with it as it’s happening,” explained Gail Scowcroft, associate director of the URI Office of Marine Programs. “The students will have direct audio and video contact with the scientists, pilots, and navigators aboard the research ship. In future expeditions, the students will even get to control the remotely operated vehicles that are used to explore beneath the ocean surface.”

Ballard discussed bridging the gap between oceanic research and K-12 education with a group of Rhode Island school superintendents last year, which inspired Smithfield Superintendent Robert O’Brien to launch the partnership with URI.

“I have the same vision that Robert Ballard has, and I’m just as excited about it,” said O’Brien. “This technology is so natural because it’s the way kids learn today. This will really engage our students to learn about the oceans. After all, we are the Ocean State.”

Ballard, a URI professor of oceanography, worked with his team of engineers to develop the hardware and software necessary to make the system work. O’Brien is working to link the science console to a large video screen in the school’s auditorium, and also to provide an underground fiber optic cable to link the system to the town’s nearby middle school.

Maryann Scholl, manager of distance learning for the Office of Marine Programs, has already conducted two training sessions for Smithfield teachers interested in using the console during Ballard’s March 2-10 expedition to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located 115 miles off the coast of Texas. Additional training for Smithfield teachers who would like to participate in future expeditions will be offered in the spring. Teachers from school districts that are members of the Northern Rhode Island Collaborative will also be offered comprehensive professional development programming to help them incorporate ocean science with their curricula that satisfies the new K-12 Rhode Island Grade Span Expectations in science.

While Ballard’s research expeditions are the only ones with which Smithfield teachers and students are currently able to interact, that will soon change. When the new NOAA research vessel Okeanos Explorer becomes operational later this year, the Smithfield students will be able to engage year-round with scientists on every expedition aboard the ship.