Section 4: Description of FOSTER Online

FOSTER (Flight Opportunities for Science Teacher EnRichment)Online plugged an airborne astronomy missions group into cyberspace. These researchers flew on NASAs Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) from early May through early June of 1994. The Kuiper team used an infrared telescope at 41,000 feet, where the altitude diminishes problems with atmospheric absorption. The exotic apparatus involved temperatures near absolute zero. The women and men of Kuiper conducted their research from both Hawaii and California. Throughout the monthlong deployment, they shared the excitement of a NASA research project with K12 classrooms via the Internet.

l260 A variety of online options were made available to participants, with email as the base. An automated list (majordomo) was created; once subscribed, people received updates from the KAO staff and from the FOSTER Online organizers about project logistics. Email questions were sent to askfoster@quest.arc.nasa.gov; a separate maillist was created to distribute all questionanswer pairs. A maillist for unmoderated discussion between involved teachers was created.

By the end of the project, the number of subscriptions to the main update list, the questionanswer maillist, and the discussion maillist was 320, 49, and 31 respectively. This does not include the large numbers of people who had access to the information via an intermediate source. For example, PBS Learning Link and America Online both reposted Quest information in a place more accessible for their respective users. Many other providers did likewise. No attempt was made to quantify these participants. In addition, a variety of information was put online at Quest for FTP and Gopher retrieval.

We had planned to send project updates daily, but as the project progressed their frequency diminished due to the many technical problems we experienced (See Appendix B2 for details). A video documentary about the research team was originally scheduled to be aired weekly via NASA TV starting May 11, 1994. However, production problems, scheduling snafus and the sudden announcement of a supermassive black hole conspired to push the first air date back into early June. This caused considerable frustration for many involved. During the project, a serious computer security incident disrupted the operation of the server computer. For approximately five days the computer was unavailable. In addition, for two weeks all project work was required to physically be done in one computer room. This was far less convenient than the network access normally available. As a result of these glitches only thirteen reports were posted over the thirty-two day period.

Students and teachers were encouraged to send questions to the research team via email. One hundred forty questions were received over five weeks. Virtually every question was acknowledged immediately and most questions were answered by an expert within a week (See Appendix B4 for details). Ninetyseven questions were unique and required an answer from an expert.

A single paid and highlytrained person performed all Smart Filter functions, spending approximately one hundred hours on the task (See Appendix B6 for more details). No attempt was made to incorporate volunteers or student Smart Filters. A paper log of all incoming questions and their status helped ensure that no questions were lost. Virtually all incoming questions were personally acknowledged swiftly and then forwarded to an expert. All email movement and tracking was done by hand. It is clear that simple routines could automate some tasks and greatly reduce the Smart Filter workload.

A total of 18 different KAO team members agreed to participate as experts. During the course of the project, a few additional astronomers who had heard about the project but hadnt originally been invited asked to participate.

The following background materials were placed online:

We suspected at the outset that the timing of the project would be difficult for most American schools, since it began just when most schools were winding down the school year. This assumption was confirmed when almost all of the project action took place during the first three weeks. An earlier start date would have helped, but this tradeoff would have allowed less preparation time for the project coordinators and teachers. As it was, serious implementation didnt begin until early March. The first public announcement occurred on April 22, 1994. This was only 11 days before the projects starting date of May 3. In the United States, some K12 schools finish their spring sessions as early as mid-May.

Despite the administrative difficulties we encountered, the project was judged an overwhelming success by its participants, even though they reported significant difficulty in fitting it in to their existing curricula (See Appendix B8 for details).Classrooms got prompt answers and felt connected to working science. Evaluation forms were filled with positive feedback and a wish for more such projects in the future. The NASA experts overwhelmingly enjoyed the project. None received too much mail; some even asked for more questions when their share slowed. As word leaked out, additional astronomers who were not originally included asked to participate.


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