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Erie County Touts Distance Environmental Education

By Joyce Kryszak

Buffalo – Erie County Thursday officially unveiled its new environmental education-distance learning program. The $100,000 collaborative project aims to link schools across the region to natural and technical resources via video conferencing.

There's a new kind of experiment going on at the Buffalo Science Museum. Kids are talking and learning about mother nature -- with a little help from technology.

Giant television screens project live images of students from three different schools across the area. Third graders from Winchester School who are at the Erie One Boces distance learning lab, seventh graders at the Nichols School, and, really live, a fifth grade class from the Waterfront school who were at the Science Museum's distance learning lab.

County Executive Giambra says the program is about connecting kids and connecting education with the 21st century.

"Information is knowledge, and knowledge is power," said Giambra. "And what we're doing today is flipping the power switch on that will connect the science museum and all the assets that we have here with all of the schools that are participating in this program."

Much of the power in this program has already been turned on. Through various grants and funding sources, Western New York now has a $10 million infrastructure in place for distance learning. Sixty schools are wired with labs, where students can talk via live video conference with other classes. But for the Waterfront kids, this was a first time distant experience. Teacher Diane Johnson says it was exciting.

"It was very interactive, the kids handled it and the technology went great, without any kinks," said Johnson. "And it was a great opportunity for us to interactive with other classes that we wouldn't have been able to otherwise."

And that is crucial says Carol Kostyniak, who is a project director for BISSNET, a local support network and one of the collaborators on the project. She says the technology is especially valuable for helping students understand how they, and the ecology are linked.

"Just to communicate with each, other -- gee, look what I found in the water today," said Kostyniak. "Because you can sample Lake Erie, but where is it coming from? It may be coming from something in West Seneca. So, they can this is what's happening and can see what happens out here as that river or creek eventually gets here."

And this isn't just show and tell. Science Museum President David Chesebrough says one goal of the program is to help kids become junior scientists.

"Some of the other pilot projects that we envision as a component of this are more of a kind of citizen science like approach," said Chesebrough. "Where people can collect data, whether its students at schools throughout the region, whether its community. And let people collect data that actually becomes meaningful, in us having a better sense of what is the environmental health of our community -- and how can we start developing strategies to improve it."

With distance learning, students can also take "virtual field trips" to places like the science museum or the zoo. But Chesebrough says technology not a replacement for the real thing.

"As we look at the resources that we have at Tifft, and what we can do with students and teachers, and getting them involved in the environment - there's still no replacement for getting them outdoors, whether its at their school site, in their backyard, or at some unique place like Tift, or out on the Great Lakes," said Chesebrough. "But then what we can do, though, is maximize that ability, by helping them understand, what they're going to be doing ahead of time, or by linking them up with scientists."

Experts and resources from across the region are being tapped to maximize the project's potential. Some of the partners involved include UB's Center for Applied Technologies in Education, the Buffalo State College Great Lakes Field Station, the Niagara Aquarium and many others. Chesebrough says he believes the program will become a model for the whole country. But Chesebrough says, as with any experiment, the most important variable is the result.

"That's help encourage them to be good stewards," said Chesebrough. "Because that's really where the bottom line is. Do our efforts help this world become a better place? We do by helping kids see their role in the environment, and grow up into people who can make good, conscious decisions. I tell you what, in Buffalo, with places like the Love Canal in our background, we simply have to be more thoughtful."

The initial phase of the project will be tested for the 2002-2003 school year. But the county hopes to eventually reach out -- with distant learning -- to connect all of the region's public, private, and charter schools.