March 9, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 13

current issue
archive / search

    Making connections

    University helps introduce world of Internet to Du Sable students With the Internet expanding at a prodigious rate, new access sites aren't often newsworthy. But one new site marks a rather remarkable achievement for a Chicago public high school and its University collaborators.

    Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable High School, a scant 10-minute drive west from Hyde Park, may as well be in another universe. The school sits in the midst of the Robert Taylor Homes -- known nationwide as a landmark of poverty. Eighty-five percent of Du Sable's 1,400 students live in the housing project. Many of the students have not had the opportunity to travel beyond their own neighborhood.

    But now, thanks to a collaboration with the Astronomy Department, Du Sable has leapt past every other public school in Chicago and has gained a chance for its students to explore the world by becoming the first Chicago public school with a direct connection to the Internet. In the spirit of the man for whom the school is named, Du Sable has become a Chicago pioneer.

    Seeds of collaboration

    The story of Du Sable High School's venture on the information superhighway began two years ago with the budding friendship of Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, Research Associate in Astronomy & Astrophysics, and Bennett Brown, a science teacher at Du Sable and a recent physics graduate from MIT. Brown lived in a cooperative house in Hyde Park where Mac Low ate dinner every night.

    As Mac Low explains, "We were washing dishes one night, and I said, 'Hey, I just found out about some money NASA is offering for K-12 education projects -- do you want to write a grant proposal?' Bennett said that he had, in fact, already written a proposal and was just looking for someone to send it to. Basically, I gave him an opportunity that he was ready to take."

    The grant proposal asked for funds to support summer camping trips where small groups of Du Sable students would learn astronomy. With Mac Low as the principal investigator on the grant, the proposal was accepted, and Mac Low and Brown spent several weekends during the summer of 1994 taking groups of Du Sable students to Starved Rock State Park.

    "That was my initial introduction to Du Sable and to working with Bennett professionally," said Mac Low. "This year, Bennett said, 'I want e-mail!' Everything else grew out of that."

    'Internet Du Sable!'

    "Everything else" began with deciding to go back to NASA to ask for more money, this time to fund a proposal to make Du Sable its own node on the information superhighway. Mac Low said the goals of the proposal were threefold: "First of all, to get teachers on e-mail, which would reduce the isolation of the classroom teacher and allow teachers to exchange ideas with their colleagues and interact with other professionals."

    The second goal was to reduce the isolation of the students. "Half of the kids on our camping trips had never been out of Chicago," he said. "The Internet provides a way for them to travel -- even if they're not going to travel physically -- and opens up their horizons."

    The third goal was to teach students skills, "things as simple as writing and as complex as Unix," said Mac Low. "These are the skills that are going to be in demand in the future, and this is a way of bringing them in."

    They brought in more participants, including Don York, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, who was keenly interested in helping students in the Chicago public schools get on-line. York convened a critical meeting at the University to develop a successful strategy. With advice from Joel Mambretti, Director of Academic Information Technologies, enthusiasm from Du Sable principal Charles Mingo and a cadre of interested Du Sable teachers, the "Internet Du Sable!" project took off.

    Mac Low said the camping trips had established their credibility with NASA, so when they went back this year with the ambitious Internet proposal, it was reviewed seriously. "With the camping trips, we said we would do something exciting, and we did," he said. "When we came back with the request to put in the T1 line [a fast connection to the Internet], we had credibility and were given the money."

    York is the principal investigator on the Internet grant, and Brown, Du Sable computer specialist Paul Charleston, University graduate student James Lauroesch and Mac Low are co-investigators. Lauroesch, a graduate student in astronomy, provided the technical expertise to put the nuts and bolts of Du Sable's network together.

    The NASA money provided the bulk of the initial T1 connection, and discretionary funds from Du Sable bought new computers and will provide for yearly rental and maintenance.

    A T1 connection places Du Sable among the public-school elite. A recent Department of Education survey of public schools nationwide found only 35 percent with any access to the Internet, and only 3 percent of those with access via a T1 line.

    Snowball effect

    The promise of funds from NASA had just come through last November when Brown, leading a team of Du Sable teachers, set his sights even higher. Brown and Mac Low spearheaded an effort to apply for money the state of Illinois would be awarding to schools for technology implementation. The payoff was potentially huge: not only would the funds provide much-needed technical support for Du Sable's computer network and provide for teacher training, but the increased funding would allow Du Sable to serve as the training site for other schools in the Chicago metropolitan area.

    State officials were impressed by the degree of commitment Du Sable had made to installing and utilizing the technology made available through the NASA grant, and also by the support Du Sable had from Mac Low and others at the University.

    When the Illinois State Board of Education announced the recipients of the grants in February, Du Sable was one of 14 sites selected. By Feb. 27, the first of two part-time Internet coordinators had been hired at Du Sable, and Brown's Internet lab had begun offering training for teachers and students.

    Lauroesch and Brown together created a home page for Du Sable High School (URL: http://www.dusable.cps.k12.il.us/index.html) that includes pictures of the school and the principal and a virtual tour of the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, as well as information on Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, who founded the city of Chicago, and on famous Du Sable alumnus Harold Washington. The home page has links to web pages for the U.S. government, universities, museums, educational and community resources, and, of course, astronomical information.

    Eventually, individual students and teachers will be able to construct their own personal web pages, and the school's award-winning newspaper, The Panther Press, will go on-line.

    Lauroesch created Du Sable's web pages almost entirely on the computer in his University office. When he finishes his Ph.D., he hopes to continue working as an adviser for Du Sable from wherever he ends up working. "One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that you can be halfway across the country and still work with people," he said.

    The Internet project at Du Sable is in its infancy, but Brown has ambitious plans. With the funds currently allocated, Du Sable will be able to put computers in 46 classrooms. Brown hopes to establish Usenet news groups for on-line discussions within the school, encourage teachers in different subject areas to work together on interdisciplinary projects with their students and use the World Wide Web as a research tool.

    "I think e-mail will really take off, and it will improve students' basic writing skills," he said. "It will place a much heavier focus on writing as a useful and practical tool."

    The University and the high school

    Principal Mingo would like to see the ties between the University and Du Sable continue to grow.

    "I would like to have input from the University of Chicago to develop instructional materials that we can use here in our classrooms," he said. "Seeing university professionals here in our school erases some of the mystique -- our teachers see the U of C staff members as colleagues, and it gives our students an opportunity to see collegiate people who are really not so different from them."

    Edna Hart, vice principal in charge of discipline and security at Du Sable and a Hyde Park resident, concurred. "The University of Chicago is a tremendous resource," she said. "For all of us to survive educationally, we're going to have to do more together."

    -- Diana Steele