hanks to the marriage of fiber-optic cable and state-of-the-art computer technology, the nation's "information highway" is beginning to take shape. As a result, data bases and other educational resources that were once available only to a select few are increasingly accessible to anyone with a phone line and a personal computer.
Still, getting out on the highway and driving can be pretty daunting. Most of what you hear about the information highway is pretty heady stuff--university researchers trading data with scientists at national laboratories and pint-size computer wizards using supercomputers to plot the orbits of the moons of Jupiter. You can just imagine these guys tooling down the information highway in their Ferraris. That's great for them, but what about the regular folks who want to get out on the highway in their Chevettes and Pintos?
That's where the Oak Ridge Educational Network, or OREN, comes in. OREN helps schools use old or donated computer equipment to tap into a part of the highway called the Internet, an international network of data bases, libraries, and electronic mail services, without running up a Ferrari-sized tab. "There are other programs that aim at high-performance computing or at schools with established programs and lots of equipment," says OREN administrator, John Wooten, a physicist in ORNL's Office of Science and External Relations. "We aim at schools in the counties around Oak Ridge that need basic access to information. We help them set up a network with whatever computers they have to start with. We also give advice on wiring, networks, software, and electronic communication standards, so they can expand their system when they're ready."
Once the system is installed, both students and teachers discover there is a world of electronic information literally at their fingertips. Students mostly use the system to explore. There are all sorts of things on the Internet--health and science information, movie reviews, college catalogs. "The age of the student has a lot to do with what they are drawn to," Wooten says. "Once the kids get used to the system, they begin thinking how things could work better and some of them get interested in programming. We encourage that and try to locate local mentors to support and encourage their interests."
Teachers often use the system to communicate with scientists and other teachers across the country and throughout the world to locate materials for their classrooms. The ability to do this kind of research on-line helps these teachers make the most out of limited resources. Complete courses are available on-line from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Department of Education, among others.
This no-frills approach to computing has gained more than 1200 users among resource-hungry students and educators alike. "We try to recruit people to become agents of change in their classes and schools," says Wooten. "Then they go and get others involved."
OREN users aren't the only beneficiaries of the network. Laboratory research and development programs benefit as well from the increased visibility offered by the network. "As people begin to use the indexing services on the network," says Wooten, "they begin to use ORNL resources. We have a lot of resources available for distribution that the public isn't aware of."
For example, ORNL, along with Vanderbilt University and Argonne National Laboratory are developing the "Ask a Scientist" program, which allows teachers or students to use the network to request information on things like the effects of global warming. When a request is received, a researcher at the Laboratory or one of the other institutions provides an answer via the network.
Similarly, ORNL's Engineering Physics and Mathematics Division offers a service called Netlib. Netlib is a data base of mathematical routines students and teachers can access through the network to perform a variety of time-consuming functions, such as inverting a matrix. This service has been around for years but has become much more popular since it has been accessible through the Internet.
OREN has also been asked by the National Academy of Sciences to provide network access for all of the Presidential Awardees--outstanding teachers from all 50 states. OREN will provide these educators with a way to interact with their peers nationwide and share some of their award-winning insights.
Wooten sees OREN as a winning proposition for ORNL, its community, and the system's users. "It allows the Lab to be both a good citizen and a source of information," he says. "One of the functions of a national laboratory is to support and inform the community around it," he says. "If you don't get the word out, you're not doing a lot of good."--Jim Pearce
"Adventures in Supercomputing" Program Takes Off
Six Tennessee high schools will participate in DOE's "Adventures in Supercomputing" (AiS) program at ORNL. Twenty-five high schools from across the state applied for spots in the two-year-old program, which is offered by ORNL, Ames Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories.
Today, many public schools still have little or no access to computers. The AiS program provides students with first-rate computing systems and networks at no cost to the school.
Each selected school will receive a free, open-ended DOE loan of four Apple Macintosh computers, software tools, a color printer, curriculum materials, and continuing support from technical consultants. Students will have access to federal laboratory supercomputers through the Internet communications network. This service, program coordinators say, will encourage development of essential skills for high-tech research in the future.
"Increasingly, science is advanced by use of computer simulations and other computational science techniques," says Richard Hicks, AiS coordinator for ORNL. Because computer models can save considerable time and money and are inherently safe, they benefit nearly every branch of science.
Barbara Summers, who teaches chemistry, calculus, and computer programming at Central High School in Wartburg, said AiS has revitalized her students' interest in math and science. "It has literally been a springboard for taking our school into the world of high technology. Before we got into the program, we didn't have many kids with a driving interest in math and science. Now, the computer lab is full constantly," she said. Her students' research projects range from design of better materials for spacecraft to environmental cleanup technologies.
In June, a team of two teachers from each selected Tennessee high school attended a two-and-a-half-week summer institute at ORNL, where they were shown how to set up their classroom workstations and were trained in programming, networking, and the basic concepts of high-performance computing.
Selection of schools is based on their ability to fulfill the program's goal of reaching women, minority, and disadvantaged students and to provide two highly motivated teachers. "This program," Hicks says, "not only addresses the issue of improving overall technical literacy but also seeks to expand the pool of students who seriously consider scientific careers."
Summers says she's convinced the program is already steering students in that direction. "Our school doesn't start until 8:45, but we have kids showing up at 7:30 just to get on the computers," she said.
"It's so exciting to see where we are now, compared with where we were before the program started here."--Wayne Scarbrough and Karen Bowdle