Using Videoconferencing

in the

Science Lab

Copyright 1999 by James P. Riser


Videoconferencing is a tool which is becoming widely used in business, medicine, and education. Until rather recently, the classroom teacher has been unable to utilize this valuable tool. Since it is our task as educators to prepare youth for the future, I feel that it is our duty to try to include some videoconferencing activities in our offerings to students. With limited budgets for hardware and software, the activities must be tailored to work within these limitations. On this web page I shall attempt to share some of my findings from experimenting with videoconferencing as a teaching tool.

Examples of possible uses for videoconferencing:

Communication exercise
- I have used videoconferencing techniques to help acquaint my students with the problems of communicating clearly with others. In my classroom/lab I have two teams of two students each. Teams are seated at opposite ends of the rather large room (so that they can not see each other). Both teams have a matching assortment of Lego pieces. One team builds a small model with the Lego parts. This team describes the model to the second team which is to recreate it from their Lego parts. The description to the second team must follow a set of rules.

Examples of this might be:

Team 1 may only type directions and Team 2 may only type questions.
Teams 1 and 2 may both type and send verbal (sound) instructions/questions
Team 1 may utilize video to show the part being used; but must type or use sound to describe how to use the part in the model.
Team 2 may use video, sound, and typing to ask questions.

Share-a-Skill exercise - For this type of activity I prefer to communicate between classrooms or even different schools. Students at one end demonstrate and explain how to do something. Examples might be: How to properly use a compound microscope or how to use the triple beam balance. Students at the other end could set up their microscope or balance, follow instructions, ask questions, show problems they might be having. This activity would incorporate video, sound, and text.

Showing what makes your part of the country special - In this activity students from one part of the country show others some of the local plants and animals. This is a good time for my students in Tucson to show living tarantulas, horned toads, scorpions, cactus, etc. Students in other parts of the country might demonstrate differences in types of oaks or maples, birds, etc. This makes for a true information exchange. Remember that both sides of the conference may show things and ask questions.

Demonstrating how to make an effective science project display - In this activity older students could demonstrate methods for building the display.

Cooperative work between teams - This would probably be the highest level of videoconferencing use in a science lab. Here teams (there may be more than two) would all be working on the same project and comparing results/conclusions. An example might be my "Young Edison Activity" . After agreeing on what makes "the best light bulb", students from all over would be trying various filaments, voltages, etc. and comparing results. This really allows students to get the feel for working within a world wide team.

Software and hardware considerations:

With videoconferencing speed is everything! You will want the fastest computer that you can get your hands on. You will want the fastest internet connection that you can get. My lab is connected to a T1 line. A fast modem will work; but the sound and video will suffer (they suffer on a busy T1, too). DSL is a good option. Connecting rooms on the same trunk of a T1 gives excellent results.

There are small cameras available such as the Connectix QuickCam which will work nicely. If you are on the PC platform and want a better setup, you might use the Dazzle DVC unit. This will give you more flexibility with the images.

Software may be bought or downloaded for free. My favorite of the free softwares available is iVisit. This software allows the creation of private conference rooms for multiple users without the need for a "reflector site". The older free grayscale version of CU-SeeMe will work for conferences between two locations. More than two requires a "reflector site".
Going to public reflectors can introduce "inappropriate material/images". I prefer to avoid such distractions.

All of the softwares will have several possible windows open when running. There will be the window showing the video that you are sending out. You may adjust the size and even freeze the action on this to improve the sound quality. There will be a sound control window where the volume may be adjusted and the "press to talk" button resides. There will be video
windows for each person (having a camera turned on) participating in the conference. There will be a chat window for typing text. There will also be a list of participants window. The software is easy to use and setup.

Possible room setups:

A key component to quality video is having enough light on the subject. BTW - the Connectix QuickCams will only automatically adjust the light if the preview window is showing! The better versions of this camera are color and will do an adjustable macro focus. For better video you will need a separate camera plugged into a video/sound digitizer. Good
sound might require carpet on the floor and a separate microphone for each speaker. It is nice if you can project your screen for others to see. This should be situated so that the "talent" is looking toward the camera while they are also seeing the others in the conference.

Teacher exchanges:

Videoconferencing allows teachers within a school district or even around the world to exchange ideas, activities, and work together on projects. Members of the NASA Classroom of the Future 2001 Master Teacher Cadre regularly get together to work out common concerns over iVisit. We set up our own password protected conference room and it is really nice to "see" each other again.

Final thoughts:

If you decide to incorporate videoconferencing activities into your program, just be certain that you put together educationally sound activities. I hope to see you on iVisit someday.