Section 2: General Description of Interactive Projects

Interactive Projects enable connections between schools and NASA experts working on specific scientific missions (biosciences, astronomy, space exploration, and the like) via email and various forms of file transfer. A great deal of background information about the mission and its people is placed online, and mission updates are widely and frequently distributed. Using the scientific missions as a base, interactive projects support relationships between students, teachers, and professionals that transcend normal school boundaries.

Each of our interactive projects thus far has involved five distinct groups of people: students, teachers, professionals/experts, project organizers, and onlookers. It is important to remember that each group has different needs. A project may work well for one set of people while not meeting the needs of another group. Similarly, there are several project goals, some of which may conflict with one another:

As one example of these types of real or potential conflict, the primary task of professionals/experts is to do the jobs for which they are paid. This is particularly true in a work environment like NASAs with critical and dangerous operations. Safeguards must be maintained so that a worker dependent on email does not log in one morning to find a mountain of K12 messages which bog down or overwhelm her professional tasks. In addition, experts should not be bothered with answering the same question over and over again. This is a situation in which the needs of one group (teachers and students) for easy, open access conflicts with those of another (the professionals/experts) for some insulation from the classroom and control over the access they allow.

Such requirements demand that some sort of buffer be placed between experts and classrooms. These buffers may be implemented through peoplebased administrative procedures, through automating software, or some combination of the two. The cost/benefit ratio of automation depends upon the nature of the interactions you wish to encourage. For instance, it is relatively easy to automate a question/response system if each query is considered unrelated to all the others. Under such a system there would be no consideration given to the fact that a class that asks a question about robots in space, for example, may have been carrying on an extensive correspondence with a particular scientist on that topic, and so the question might be randomly routed to a different expert.

If you want to encourage strong relationships between students/teachers and experts, however, youll want all appropriate questions from a given source to go to the same experts. Thus, in the preceding example, youd want all questions from that particular class that ask about space robots to go to the same scientist. While this might seem like a relatively easy task to automate, it proved too unwieldy for us to implement this time around. This is just one reason why peoplebased project management seems desirable for all but the most routine tasks, at least given our present capabilities.

We refer to the people who support the nonautomated management functions as Smart Filters. These people could be individual volunteer helpers, teachers with motivated students, or paid employees. Smart Filters read the new mail and decide if a similar question was already answered (by database lookup). If not, then the question is unique and is forwarded to an appropriate expert to be answered. How well you recruit and train Smart Filters has a significant effect on the outcome of your project. Smart Filters themselves may also be miniexperts in a particular subject area, in which case they may respond to a question without involving a professional. This model works well when a high school group works together to cover a given subject, since their questionanswering provides a rich learning experience for them.

Other tensions arise from the fact that project schedules and time frames will vary. One basic parameter is the duration of the period during which questions may be submitted. Establishing a brief interval for question submission will reduce the impact of the project on all parties. While this may be desirable for professionals, many classrooms would prefer relationships lasting more than a few weeks. A second parameter is the turnaround time you establish as a baseline for getting questions answered. This may range from a few hours (impractical, in our experience) to a few days (too long to hold classroom interest). Finally, the amount of lead time available between project conception, public unveiling, and full implementation will vary from case to case and will directly dominate many project decisions.

Back to the Lessons Learned Index