Fall 1997


by Randy Jones

How do you convince middle school students more interested in Phish, the rock band making a splash in the steady stream of MTV, to take a fresh look at fish, the vertebrate, flopping around in the backwaters of some wildlife refuge?

In search of an answer, teachers are brushing the chalk dust from some dry academic subjects and sending their students clicking and dragging into the cybersphere of educational software.

And to help them, JMU professors and students are creating interactive educational CD-ROMs - and teaching themselves some lessons in the process.

"I've gotten to learn a lot about developing media for [CD-ROMs]," says Viranand "Bunny" Prasarnphanich ('97), who spent two summers and her senior year at JMU working on resource management software, assisted part of that time by fellow senior - and now graduate - Andrew Aamot ('97). "It's not just like making a movie or book. There are a lot of different things that you have to simplify and make more interactive," she adds, explaining the challenge of trying to visually represent scientific concepts that "are accessible to middle schoolers," such as the chemical processes by which ozone pollution is produced.

In the midst of creating software to teach others, this integrated science and technology graduate and dozens of students across campus have taught themselves the basic skills for possible careers in multimedia, software development or computer science.

They've envisioned their product, defined its purpose, turned their story concept into interactive sights and sounds and programmed the product to behave as desired for the user - the middle schoolers and their teachers.

In the case of Prasarnpha-nich and Aamot's unofficially dubbed "Virtual Park," creators wanted the CD to incorporate role-playing as a learning tool for children using the software. By simulating a federal land manager's role, CISAT professor and project mentor Steven Frysinger reasons, middle schoolers confronting specific resource issues will learn that air quality is not just hot air.

A student acting as a resource manager, for instance, may learn a species of tree in the virtual park is prematurely browning and then determine from interactive pictures and data whether the browning results from an insect infestation or excess ozone created by the emissions of vehicles cruising the park. In either case, Frysinger says, the student offers a solution, and the program assesses the consequences of the decision.

For Colby Geiman ('98), who volunteered to continue the project after Prasarnphanich and Aamot graduated, one of the biggest challenges, besides the technical aspect of learning a "new programming environment," has been working with the other agencies involved in developing the park software. The CD is a collaboration among CISAT, the National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.

Since the emphasis is on the CD's educational value, those creating the software, including JMU students and faculty advisers, are careful to solicit the views of not only park service officials, but teachers too - which often means changing aspects of the information's presentation.

"Because students are one of our primary audiences, we want teachers involved," explains Bruce Nash, of the NPS's Air Quality Control Division in Denver.

In addition, Bob Kolvoord, who creates educational software at CISAT, has guided ISAT students through the process of putting educational material into CD format. The two students devoted more than 1,000 hours to the project, independently and together through many afternoons and late nights in CISAT's media lab.

Thus far, the virtual park's participants have focused solely on creating a prototype of Shenandoah National Park, examining only the issue of its air quality. But, says Frysinger, JMU and the park service envision a CD-ROM that includes the vital data of most U.S. parks and wildlife refuges and examines diverse natural resource issues, not just air quality. Park officials at Shenandoah and elsewhere have been pleased enough with the results so far, Frysinger adds, to sponsor expand- ing the project over five years.

Virtual Lessons

For the last year public school students have been role-playing their way through the Virginia General Assembly's legislative process using the Explorer CD-ROM, created last year by JMU's John Woody and the Center for Multimedia.

Through Explorer, middle school students act like assembly delegates and senators as they debate and vote on two bills, for which their votes are individually recorded so a teacher can discuss a class's legislative record. Explorer also includes a 50-minute video program narrated by Harrisonburg television reporter Channa Brooks ('96), who explains how a bill originating in either the state senate or house becomes a law. The software also includes a glossary of legislative terms, teacher lesson plans and features a self-paced tour of the state Capitol and library that relies on three-dimensional, click-on graphics, pictures and icons that let students access more information as they visit the various rooms and galleries in those buildings.

The highlight of the program, all agree, is a simulated quiz show. The software's creators "all figured we needed a payoff," explains the Center for Multimedia's Jeff Butler ('91). It was important, explains the former mass communications major, that students have "something that wouldn't be a letdown from their information quest."

Onto center stage, therefore, steps JMU theater professor George Wead, who plays an affable, yet quirky game show host quizzing students on the knowledge they've gained from the educational sections of the Explorer program. Topped with an ill- fitting toupee, Wead responds amid goofy sound effects to each student's answers with comments that indicate whether a student appears to be "governing" or "lame-ducking" the issues.

Once again, those creating the software estimate they learned as much as their product teaches. The project began with just an old 14-page pamphlet from state senate officials who essentially wanted it turned into "a 1990s technology package," says Butler. The challenge during the 18-month project was creating the graphics and specifics for the pamphlet's content, while holding "junior high schoolers' attention in doing it. ... The funnest part of doing the CD," he adds, "was using it once it was done."

When Explorer, currently in high demand in Virginia, was exhibited last fall at a conference of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries in Williamsburg, officials from 20 states asked for copies and planned to campaign for a similar program in their respective states, says Virginia Senate Clerk Susan Clarke Schaar, who helped shepherd the project from the start.

When the School of Media Arts and Design first dabbled with Warner Brothers to create its Interactive Band Series, the foundation was laid for shaping the school's increasingly popular multimedia major.

The series is a five-CD interactive symphonic music catalog for band instructors to use in selecting sheet music that matches the skill levels of their respective student bands. Over the last three years, the CDs have taken the efforts of about 50 SMAD and music stu- dents and professors Robert Smith, John Woody and SMAD director George Johnson.

Some of those students, who learned the essentials of programming, designing and transcribing music, have since graduated and gone on to professional positions with multimedia firms.

As SMAD conducted the Warner Bros. Interactive Band Series project, it became apparent to Johnson, who did much of the the programming that multimedia majors would benefit if their curriculum incorporated a team approach in creating multimedia. In its senior-level courses, the school now pairs students with disparate skills in computer graphics, programming and music to work as an ensemble on projects. It fosters more of an entrepreneurial spirit than an assembly-line approach, Johnson notes.

Recently another group of SMAD students updated and fine-tuned the Warner Bros. CD catalog, which enables band instructors, at their own tempo and convenience, to hear and see a composition before purchasing it, thereby ensuring that their bands are capable of playing it. Each CD-ROM in the series contains the entire orchestral score for every composition listed, along with a complete recording of the music, and information about the piece and its composer.

"When this hit the market, other publishing companies were saying, 'Wow,'" Johnson says. Those companies are now scrambling to get in sync with Warner Bros., the leading publisher of band music, Johnson adds.

JMU's association with educational software extends into space itself. Last January, NASA sent to the MIR Space Station The Rosetta Stone language programs to teach Russian and English to American and Russian astronauts. The CDs, part of a software library of many languages, were created at Fairfield Language Technologies, founded in 1991 by JMU computer science professor John Fairfield.

The software series takes its name from the real Rosetta Stone - found half-buried in mud near the Nile by Napoleon's engineering corps - which provided the world with the key to the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Thus far, The Rosetta Stone program has been used by schools and universities throughout the country, as well as monks, missionaries, the FBI, the U.S. State Department, corporations, prisons, the Peace Corps and more.

The CDs present an interactive sequence of pictures and conversation that immerse a student in the context and sound of a spoken language, thereby de-emphasizing traditional text-bound approaches.

"We are working on Japanese, French, Arabic - pretty much all the languages," says Michael Harris ('99).

In addition to mainstream languages, Harrisonburg-based FLT is currently developing software to preserve ancient, disappearing tongues like Gaelic, Basque and Native American languages.

Each of JMU's educational CD-ROM projects, including newer projects currently under way, are the pet projects of faculty advisers. But it is the students, they say, who do much of the work and benefit educationally from the experience.

The JMU students and alumni who work at FLT are Fairfield's former students and, he acknowledges, "the heart of the company."

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