'Jason' Brings the World Home

14th annual project uses broadband and broadcast to educate and inspire
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14th annual project uses broadband and broadcast to educate and inspire

CHANNEL ISLANDS, CALIF.

Children from around the world glimpsed the green kelp forests and frolicking gray seals of the Pacific Ocean this past February, all without leaving their own classrooms.

With the Channel Islands as their laboratory and Titanic explorer Dr. Robert Ballard as their navigator, more than a half-million children from the United States and six other countries tapped into the goings-on of the annual Jason Project, an interactive science curriculum-named after the mythological Greek explorer-that is designed to inspire interest in science, math and technology.

Organized by the Jason Foundation for Education, the 11-day project includes live and on-demand Internet broadcasts, a daily broadcast on the National Geographic Channel and an on-line digital lab. The project allows students to follow the work of researchers in real time and participate in on-site activities interactively with the help of various broadcast and broadband technology.

"[The Jason project allows us] to leap over the blackboard and textbooks and get right to the kids and teachers," said Ballard, oceanographer and founder of the Jason Foundation for Education.

ISLAND EXPLORATION

This year the Jason Project explored the Channel Islands off the coast of California after visiting locales such as Iceland, the Peruvian rainforest and the Galapagos Islands in previous years. Following their participation in related lesson plans and curriculum in class, students saw the project culminate in this expedition Jan. 27-Feb. 7, with 28 students actually working in the field to study the area's geology and the culture of the island's early inhabitants.

For the past 14 years the Jason Foundation for Education has worked with the production house Media Arts Inc., which shoots and edits a preview video of the locale and handles the live broadcast on-site.

Hauling out a load of Sony Betacams, remote audio packages and a complement of Canon and Fujinon lenses to various sites, Media Arts broadcast five one-hour shows a day from the Channel Islands. Video was sent from two originating sites-the Channel Islands and the Santa Barbara museum-and was transmitted to an EDS uplink truck via microwave. Four digitally compressed signals were encoded with a Motorola DigiCipher II on the on-site uplink truck, three of which were downlinked to several dozen primary interactive network sites (known as PINs) where video was output to student terminals.

"Students saw a live three-screen program and they sent questions immediately back to scientists live in the field," said Scott Munro, president of Media Arts Inc., who said the expedition will likely head to Panama next year and to the bayous of Louisiana the year after. The fourth signal was downlinked to classrooms that couldn't accommodate the three-screen program, as well as to National Geographic. A final version of the project will be edited in Media Art's Media 100 editing suite at its Seattle headquarters.

TRANSMISSION CHALLENGES

To give students the most realistic look at what was happening in the Channel Islands, Media Arts did some homework of its own. The company used microwave technology from Total R.F. to send signals across the 28 miles of water that separates the Channel Islands and the mainland of California. In addition, the company had a crew broadcast live from underwater using Sony DVs. Footage was transmitted via microwave back to a production truck. "By the conclusion of this broadcast we will have done 425 live broadcasts from under the sea," Munro said.

The Web streaming component, which used RealNetworks' SureStream technology, has become extremely efficient over the last few years, said Lance Hester, Web producer for EDS.com, which handles the on-line Webcast. "A couple years ago we were in Hawaii, and I was watching the Web broadcast from a hotel there," he said. "The actual broadcast location was on the other side of the island. And there was only about a 30-second delay between the live broadcast on television and what I was seeing on the Internet. It was amazing seeing that the signal was going from the editing booth in a sat truck, up to a satellite, back to [a downlink site in] Plano, Texas, up again and all the way back to Hawaii."

This year's Jason expedition also used a number of other cutting-edge technologies, including imaging instruments aboard two satellites that measured chlorophyll concentration, and a mobile satellite ground system from NASA that investigated plant life, sediment and sea surface temperatures.

"What we're trying to do with all the digital assets is to give students the feeling that they're actually there on the Channel Islands," Hester said.

Ballard has said about the project, "Our job is to capture [children 's] natural curiosity and turn it into a lifelong passion for learning.