Using Internet-Based K-12 Classroom Activities: Materials and Staff Development

David A. Thomas <>
Cynthia S. Thomas <>
Montana State University


As K-12 teachers become aware of educational Web sites, two distinct needs arise. First, teachers need assistance identifying materials relevant to their unique teaching assignments. Second, they need training in the integration of online materials with existing curricula. This paper discusses the goals, methods, and products of two Montana Internet-based materials development and teacher enhancement projects relative to these needs.



The state of Montana is located in the northwestern United States adjacent to the Canadian border. It has a land area of 147,138 square miles and a population of approximately 800,000 people, most of whom live in small towns. Eastern Montana is basically grasslands. The economy there is agricultural-based with limited human and financial resources. Western Montana has a well developed tourist economy and an extensive forest products industry. These geographic and demographic realities make it difficult for educators share ideas and materials face to face. Furthermore, severe winter driving conditions often make travel both time consuming and dangerous. Even in summer, teachers must travel hundreds of miles to attend conferences where they can meet with colleagues. As a result, many teachers are searching for technological means for sharing their concerns and collaborating with colleagues.

The Reach for the Sky Project

The Reach for the Sky Project(RFTS) was funded in 1994 by the Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project and the US WEST Foundation to

RFTS was the first project in Montana to articulate and experiment with a specific role for Internet-based telecommunications in K-12 mathematics and science education. Doing so necessarily involved a significant amount of training in the use of telecommunications technologies, discussions on how to create workable partnerships among participants who might see one another face to face only once or twice a year, and continuous orientation to the online data and information resources that began appearing on Gopher and FTP servers at about this time.

In its first year, RFTS demonstrated that K-12 teachers could use e-mail and BBS-based information services to create and teach mathematics and science lessons that transcend many of the limitations so often imposed on rural schools by geographical isolation. RFTS participants used these technologies to create text-based, virtual classrooms and teachers' lounges where ideas were discussed and data were shared. In the process, these teachers became skillful and insightful telecommunicators. Because these efforts preceeded or coincided with the development of the first graphics-based World Wide Web (WWW) browsers, there was little awareness of the richness of data available to teachers. That awareness came in the second and third years of RFTS and became the focus of materials development activities in the Network Montana Project discussed later in this paper.

In addition to the online courses, RFTS participants offer in-service teacher training for their colleagues. Many of these in-service opportunities have been in the form of online mentoring using the beginning courses created by the project. However, in-service training has also been offered in face to face settings assisting teachers unfamiliar with technology to discover the benefits of being involved in online projects. Many of the participants in the project work in rural areas where technology resources are limited. These teachers have shown great creativity while developing and participating in telecollaborative activities as well as integrating these activities into their existing curriculum. The Reach for the Sky teachers regularly share their skills and successes with their colleagues and have used their skills to participate in other federally funded projects. As a result, over the past three years, approximately 300 teachers have participated in the online courses, mentoring, and telecollaborative activities.

A personal account

The following account of what it was like to participate as one of RFTS's first 20 teachers is offered by Cynthia S. Baumann, a respected Montana mathematics educator with over 20 years classroom experience.

In 1994, I was chosen to participate in the Reach for the Sky adventure. I had previously participated in several NSF-funded teacher enhancement projects and was confident of my ability to deal with new topics and situations. When I arrived at Western Montana College of the University of Montana in Dillon, Montana, for RFTS training, I was already computer literate. I had used computers personally with my students for years and had also taught adult education computer literacy classes in my community. I didn't really know what telecommunications was all about, but I did know that I wasn't willing to be left behind as this new aspect of education developed! RFTS challenged me in ways that no previous project had done.

During the first week of training I was so exhausted at the end of every day that I went back to my hotel room and just sat. I couldn't believe how much I didn't know! And how much there seemed to be piling up on me! As I drove the 345 miles home at the end of the first week, I felt overwhelmed and totally unprepared for the job that was given to me. I was supposed to prepare an online science/math activity to share with the other 19 teachers and their students, lead my students in at least two online activities, take an online course, participate weekly in a discussion of professional topics with the other RFTS participants, and keep an eye open for exciting Internet sites for my students and me! Fortunately when I returned for the second week of training, it all came together and began to make sense. I found that I could indeed navigate through cyberspace. I was able to develop an activity that sounded like it would work. And it was abundantly clear to me that our group was cohesive. We had become friends and, no matter what, we were in this together.

We didn't have prototypes for lessons so we tried to invent them ourselves. It was awful! Not only did we have to decide on lesson themes that could be enhanced by collaboration, but we also had to figure out a mechanism for gathering data and disseminating the lessons among participating RFTS teachers. Our first-year projects were almost totally data collection topics, that is, projects in which RFTS teachers and their students gathered and pooled locally collected data. We spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how all of this could be done without making the activities too time consuming. We knew that when we returned to our classrooms, we would have to work the RFTS materials into our already overflowing curriculum. None of us wanted the logistics of the telecommunications to bog down what we could now see would be wonderfully exciting and rewarding experiences for our students and us.

Compared with the graphics-based tools that I use today, the text-based telecommunications tools we used the first year were primitive at best. Our only surfing method was to dial long distance and logon to the Big Sky Telegraph BBS using a 9600-bps modem. The RFTS staff (Jon Robinson and Lee Hoyrup) maintained a list of online math/science data and information resources. When I saw something that looked interesting, I would choose that item and the system would automatically connect me. This method allowed me to read text files on line, but I could not see graphics until they were downloaded. This process was very time consuming, but since I didn't know that other options existed, I was thrilled with the information that was available for my students. I immediately registered for several e-mail discussion lists. During the course of the first academic year, I presented several different workshops. Some were strictly informational to community members and others were training sessions for teachers around the state.

One of my favorite RFTS Telecurricular Projects is Water Consumption Gets the Royal Flush created by Diane Econom of Denton, Montana (population 300). Diane's project first ran for six weeks in the spring of 1995. Six RFTS teachers registered their classrooms via e-mail. Our students (grades 5-9) collected data about the frequency of toilet flushes and the amount of water used for this purpose in their homes. They then posted their data to Diane who compiled it and sent it back out to all of us. The specific math/science skills emphasized were collecting data; representing data using graphs, charts, and spreadsheets; and communicating their interpretation of data via e-mail to other participating classrooms. Since each of us was in a small school setting, individual classrooms could not have gathered enough data to make sound inferences. The collaboration within RFTS provided our students with a way to gather enough data. Students also gained an appreciation of water consumption and a realization that they can do something to make a difference in their ecosystem. Diane's project continues to run and can be found at

RFTS training the second summer had an entirely different tone. We were now ready to offer our projects to teachers everywhere. Netscape opened another new world to us, but this time we weren't overwhelmed. We knew what we wanted to do! Our time the second summer was spent designing the online class that we would then facilitate for the second wave of teachers. These 80 teachers were chosen from Montana, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Utah. Each of us in the original group of 20 mentored several new teachers in online collaboration and guided them through the online course. Our projects the second year were shared with our mentees' classrooms and any other RFTS teachers who wanted to participate. This experience gave me an entirely new view of online teaching and opened my eyes to new possibilities. My involvement in the Network Montana Project allowed me to continue my exploration.

The Network Montana Project

In October of 1995, the National Infrastructure for Education (NIE) program of the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the Network Montana Project (NMP). During its first year, NMP developed a collection of materials on the theme Earth System Science. A distance learning course entitled Internet-based Earth System Science Instruction was developed to train teachers in the use of these materials. The two-credit, 580 level course is available through the National Teachers Enhancement Network Project at Montana State University. The following list of NMP Earth System Science units and classroom activities illustrates the scope and focus of these efforts.

Network Montana's Earth System Science Materials

In these activities, learners explore online resources that provide current scientific data and information. The emphasis is on using information to investigate scientific questions, creating models, and making predictions. Many activities require learners to record electronic information over several days, share data with learners at remote locations, and conduct analysis using image processing technology. The four levels (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, and Expert) are more closely aligned with computer experience and general mathematical and scientific knowledge than cognitive levels.

Atmosphere Unit

Novice Level
Intermediate Level
Advanced Level
Expert Level

Geosphere Unit

Novice Level
Intermediate Level
Advanced Level
Expert Level

Hydrosphere Unit

Novice Level
Intermediate Level
Advanced Level
Expert Level

Course development and delivery

Following development of the NMP online Earth System Science materials, two of the team leaders developed an Internet-based distance learning course to train teachers. Internet-Based Earth System Science Instruction is a 2-semester graduate level course designed for K-12 teachers already familiar with using Internet tools. Classroom materials developed by the Network Montana Project serve as model lessons using Internet resources to teach mathematics and science. Necessary scientific background is provided and effective pedagogical strategies are discussed for using computer technology with students at all levels K-12. The course is taught by a college geology/geography professor, Gerald Nelson, and an elementary teacher, Stephanie Stevenson. Credit:

A personal account

The following account of how these materials were created is offered by David A. Thomas, a professor of mathematics education in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Montana State University and Co-Principal Investigator of the Network Montana Project.

Shortly after NMP was funded, I began recruiting university and K-12 mathematics and science educators for a variety of leadership positions in NMP Materials and Staff Development. The team leaders were former students of my distance learning course Visualizatio n and Communication Tools for Mathematics and Science Teaching. Other positions were recruited from the ranks of RFTS teachers and similar projects running elsewhere in the country. Our purpose was to create and disseminate online, information-rich, inquiry-based classroom activities that:

While many people contributed to the development of these materials, the following individuals were responsible for translating this vision into classroom activities and staff development materials:

As we began working on the Earth system science materials, it quickly became clear that flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, and trust were essential elements of our partnership. Although we began our partnership based on goodwill, a mutual respect and appreciative dialogue developed between the K-12 writers and the university researchers as the expertise of both groups was expressed in different ways. For instance, cooperating scientists met with us to discuss exciting contemporary research themes and show us related WWW information, data sets, and computational tools. I asked the teachers to use their skills to create instructional scenarios that made meaningful use of those resources. The project directors facilitated this process and acted as manuscript authors and editors as documents were submitted for further development, fact checking, formatting, and informal WWW publication. As activities were drafted and published on the NMP WWW site, everyone made suggestions on how to improve and extend the activities. These suggestions were reviewed by the project directors and graduate research assistants and implemented where feasible. To those of us who participated in this process, the development of a genuine partnership between K-12 teachers and university researchers is itself a meaningful result.

While we all had experience using WWW browsers, none of us had ever attempted a systematic survey of WWW educational resources. We had only engaged in rambling, recreational meanders through cyberspace. Explorations of this sort typically take little effort, involve hardly any skill, and create the impression that finding information on the WWW is easy. This impression often leads to the false expectation that, perhaps with some clever insider knowledge, one ought be able to quickly and conveniently locate and retrieve specific sorts of online resources for educational and/or professional purposes. One of the first lessons learned in the development of our materials is that serious information mining is a difficult, time consuming task involving high level skills and critical judgments on the part of the teachers and researchers doing the work. Considering the hundreds of hours we spent identifying, retrieving, reviewing, sorting, and selecting online resources, it is clear that this sort of activity ought to be thought of as a group responsibility rather than a task for an individual teacher.

Over a period of several months, we developed an informal, productive approach to information mining. We all routinely searched the WWW for additional online resources. Interesting URLs were e-mailed to all the writers. The URLs that the writers liked became links on WWW research & development pages. In addition to promoting a general awareness on the part of all writers, the links often focused team discussions on specific scientific or mathematical content and how best to present the material in classroom activities. During development of the Earth System Science materials, the discovery of unanticipated resources frequently reshaped our goals and expectations. Furthermore, as new scientific databases appeared during the year, changes and additions were made in activities previously considered complete and ready for field testing. This experience suggests that, just as online data resources undergo periodic changes in content and format, online curricular materials should evolve to take advantage of new and better information resources. Supporting this sort of ongoing development poses real problems. This is all the more reason to conceptualize the development and maintenance of such materials as the responsibility of the profession at large, with state and federal agencies, universities, local school districts, and professional associations all playing a part.

Reflections and recommendations

Our involvement in RFTS and NMP has helped us synthesize a perspective on two teacher training models: distance learning, and on-site workshops. While we are enthusiastic about the potential of distance learning, in our experience teachers are only prepared for on-line learning after face-to-face training in the use of the technologies employed. For example, teachers participating in the ESS course need a working knowledge of e-mail, e-mail discussion lists, Telnet, FTP, and WWW browsers. For many people, acquiring these skills is itself an overwhelming challenge to their confidence. Colleagues acting as mentors have proven to be a successful method of addressing this problem. RFTS teachers specifically addressed this need by presenting over 150 workshops at local, state, regional and national meetings. Our belief is that real implementation of distance learning courses must be paired with extensive peer mentoring and staff development programs operated at the local level. One way for school districts to identify potential mentors is to contact state level professional organizations already promoting the use of telecomunications technologies in the professional development of their members.

Over the past 20 years, the Montana University System, the Montana Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM), and Montana Science Teachers Association (MSTA) have provided Montana's mathematics and science teachers with many opportunities for professional growth. These organizations have always conducted their business in a face-to-face manner and probably will continue to do so for years to come. In recent years, MCTM and MSTA leaders have used METNET, the state-wide bulletin board system, and other Internet-based communication services as one vehicle for communicating with their members between meetings. We believe that professional organizations such as these have a critical role to play in training teachers in the use of telecommunications technologies. Limited term projects such as Reach for the Sky and Network Montana have too brief an existence to have a direct, significant, long-term impact on the teaching profession as a whole. Only organizations and institutions like MCTM, MSTA, and the Montana University System can achieve that result. For this reason, we recommend that all efforts to train teachers in the use of Internet-based communications tools, curricular materials, and computational resources take place in a collaborative context with these organizations, including their leadership in advisory capacities. In Montana, this approach has helped build strong professional alliances.


  1. State of Montana
  2. Reach for the Sky
  3. Annenberg/CPB Math and Science Project
  4. Reach for the Sky Telecurricular Projects
  5. Diane Econom, Water Consumption Gets the Royal Flush
  6. National Teachers Enhancement Network Project
  7. METNET: Montana Office of Public Instruction