Oct. 24, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 4

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    Plugged in

    Expanding public schools' potential by helping them access the Internet Within a matter of days 11 neighborhood public schools will be surfing the Internet, thanks to a collaborative effort between the University of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools.

    A team of University faculty, staff and students, along with staff from the Chicago Public Schools' office of Learning Technology, have initiated the Chicago Public Schools/University of Chicago Internet Project (CUIP), which has worked over the past six months to bring the Internet to 11 schools in the Hyde Park/South Kenwood, Woodlawn and North Kenwood/Oakland neighborhoods. These schools include three high schools -- Kenwood Academy, Hyde Park Career Academy and Martin Luther King High School -- and eight elementary schools: McCosh, Murray, Ray, Fiske, Kozminski, Wirth, Revere and Carnegie.

    The idea of CUIP was conceived by Don York, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics, after the successful effort that he headed to bring an Internet connection to Du Sable High School in 1995. York heard that CPS had publicly announced its intention to wire all 500 Chicago public schools to the Internet. Realizing that this monumental task would also require considerable work with teachers if students were to benefit from this new techonology, he brought his idea for a collaborative Internet project to the University's Community Affairs Office.

    Last winter, York, Jonathan Kleinbard, Vice President for University News & Community Affairs, and Duel Richardson, Director of Neighborhood Relations, approached CPS officials and offered the University's assistance to help train CPS teachers in the use of the Internet if the CPS would commit to linking some of these 24 schools quickly to the Internet. School officials responded enthusiastically, and CUIP was begun. Sixteen of the 24 schools applied to be part of the project, and 11 schools were selected for participation based on their readiness for an Internet connection.

    "The University of Chicago has a vital interest in the surrounding communities," said Richardson, a member of CUIP's coordinating team. "Our faculty, staff and students live and work in the midst of a larger South Side community. The quality of life in each of these neighborhoods affects the others. Improvement in one area helps improve the life we all experience here. We believe the use of the Internet will expand student learning, and thereby improve public education. This will make all our neighborhoods better."

    CPS agreed to hire contractors to install the necessary high-speed phone lines and internal networking equipment. CUIP members -- including York, Richardson, astrophysics graduate students Luisa Rebull and Lucia Munoz-Franco (see sidebar), Robin Burke, Faculty Associate in Computer Science, and Mitch Marks, a member of the technical support staff in the University's Computer Science Department -- meet weekly to assess each school's progress and help solve such problems as incompatible software, internal networking problems and e-mail glitches.

    Maintaining connections Although the University has been involved at all of the stages, beginning with the evaluation of computer facilities at the schools, the most important contribution will come after the equipment is in place, Rebull said. With money specially dedicated to the project by the Physical Sciences Division and the Office of the Vice President for University News & Community Affairs, people in three part-time positions (two graduate student assistants and one part-time professional) will help teachers and network administrators at the schools with curriculum development and technical support.

    "What's most important about this project," said Rebull, who will serve as one of the curriculum coordinators, "is that we're not just bringing the lines in there and walking away."

    The curriculum consultants, Rebull and Munoz-Franco, and Richardson will work closely with principals, computer teachers and department heads at each school to help implement programs that capitalize on the resources of the Internet and to foster a computer culture among the school's faculty. They will also facilitate the exchange of resources among the schools. Marks, who will serve as technical consultant to the schools, will be available to answer questions on such issues as the purchase of computer equipment and the usefulness of various software.

    Resources are also available via CUIP's Web page (http://astro.uchicago.edu/outreach/cuip/), which offers links to on-line resources for teachers, librarians and system administrators and displays the current on-line status of each school.

    Meanwhile, York is thinking ahead to the next phase. "After everything is working smoothly at these 11 schools, we want to foster the computer cultures at the other 13 so that eventually we can get them on-line, too. My pie-in-the-sky dream is to have a terminal on every desk, a server in every room and a digital library that everyone can hook up to. I saw the library in one of these neighborhood schools and I wondered how any student could complete an assignment. If we had on-line books that were shared between schools we could multiply students' access to vital resources."

    Looking ahead Anyone who knows York knows that these are not idle thoughts. York once dreamed of building an astronomical observatory in New Mexico: today the Apache Point Observatory, built in 1984, is owned and operated by a consortium that includes the University, and York is the observatory's director. He dreamed of a telescope that could be operated from anywhere in the world: in 1994 the 3.5-meter telescope at Apache Point went on-line, the first ground-based telescope in the world that can be controlled, via the Internet, by researchers working at computers in Chicago, New York or Tokyo. He dreamed of a digital survey of the sky that would be the most complete map of the universe ever made: next spring the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, of which he is project director, will begin its survey of the heavens.

    So when York dreams of a digital library, the idea is likely only steps away from fruition. "We already have enough storage space for a pilot digital library project in our schools," he said.

    York is applying for grant money to hire assistants to compile the resources and to work out the copyright issues. He then plans to ask school librarians for a "wish list" of the books they need most. The next step, he said, is already being taken: introducing school children to the vast resources of the Internet.

    -- Diana Steele