BREWER, Maine — A Web-based project started several months ago as a way for pupils to stay connected to a classmate who moved to Minnesota last year has sparked a new educational tool that has spread across the Internet like cyberwildfire.
Third-graders in Cherrie MacInnes’ class took a Web-based field trip to the Land of 10,000 Lakes in February, and “the kids were so excited about what they learned and the videoconference we had” that the decision was made to reach out to each state in the union, she said.
MacInnes started her “Chatting Across the USA” project shortly afterward, and in the last three months her Washington Street School pupils have “traveled” to all 50 states. They ended their nationwide tour on Tuesday with a trip into Erin Porter’s third-grade classroom at Ezra Baker Elementary School in West Dennis, Mass.
“It has snowballed,” said MacInnes, a 20-year veteran teacher. “It’s crazy. We’ve developed a professional community with all the teachers who have participated.
“These teaches are e-mailing each other, exchanging ideas and making plans for next year,” she said. “And they’re also bringing other teachers in, which is really, really exciting.”
MacInnes says all that’s needed is a computer with a built-in or attached camera and an Internet connection. She has used Google Chat or Skype to videoconference with the other third-grade classrooms, and projects the digital image of the visiting class onto her classroom’s white board for her students to see. At the same time she sends their image to the other class over the Internet.
“It’s turned out to be quite an experience for our students,” said Superintendent Daniel Lee, who along with parents and others watched Tuesday’s videoconference with Massachusetts. “They’ve had a chance to connect to students all over the country. It really demonstrates how we can use technology to expand our social studies curriculum and our technology curriculum.
“What better way to learn about a state than talk to kids in that state?” he added.
The Brewer students keep journals of what they learn during the meetings and place state flag stickers on a map in their classroom after they visit a state. Each student gets a chance to ask a question or tell a Maine fact during the 20- to 30-minute Internet learning sessions.
“I think the program is very exciting,” Brianna, 9, one of MacInnes’ students, said Tuesday just before the Skype connection with Massachusetts went live.
When the connection was made, the Washington Street School third-graders, ages 8 and 9, each stood and made their way to the webcam to give a Maine fact. Afterward, students at Ezra Baker Elementary offered up facts about the Bay State.
“They’ve learned there is a lot of differences, but we also have a lot in common,” MacInnes said. “To me that’s the most important.”
MacInnes’ students learned that Maine and Massachusetts both have the chickadee as their state bird, that Maine was once a part of the southern New England state, and that the population of Massachusetts is six times larger than Maine’s.
“Wow,” the visiting Massachusetts students said in unison after hearing the population fact. One added, “and your state is bigger than ours.”
In the last three months, MacInnes’ students also have watched a concert in New Jersey and in two weeks will actually teach a roomful of Florida teachers about their project from their Brewer classroom.
“That’s just another side of this,” MacInnes said.
As a way to connect to classrooms all over the country, the Brewer technology team created a database under a new website, ClassChats.com, so teachers from elementary and high schools across the country can connect to one another easily.
The “Chatting Across the USA” project has shown school administrators in Brewer and other states the benefits of using technology already at hand to expand educational offerings to students, said Lee.
“It started out small and turned out to be a phenomenal experience,” he said.
The cost of a virtual field trip is minimal compared to actually sending a class on a real field trip, MacInnes said. Next year, she plans to send her class to visit a country on each continent, as well as the South Pole, and would like to take visual tours of museums, planetariums or aquariums.
“I want to do more than just videoconference,” she said. “I could just go crazy thinking of all the things we can do. The possibilities are endless, and there is no limit to the age range.”