April 1994 "Mining the Internet" column, The Computing Teacher

[Electronically reprinted with permission from The Computing Teacher journal, published by the International Society for Technology in Education.]

The information on this page is provided for archival purposes only. Most of the links that it contains have expired. More recent articles on similar topics can be found here: http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~jbharris/Virtual-Architecture/Foundation/index.html .

"Opportunities in Work Clothes:" Online Problem Solving Project Structures

by Judi Harris

Henry Kaiser (1882 - 1967) once said that

Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.

Problem solving is one of the most beneficial educational opportunities that we can offer students of any age. The Internet can be used to extend cooperative problem solving activity around the world. Educational problem solving projects are, as yet, the least common kind of Internet-based activity that involves precollege students, but they are among the best examples of how asynchronous connectivity can be used to support and enrich precollege curricula. Online problem-solving activities can be either competitive or collaborative.

Problem solving projects are one of three general types of educational telecomputing activities that have been presented in this "Mining the Internet" series: interpersonal exchanges (February 1994), information collections (March 1994), and problem solving (April 1994). Each general class of educational telecomputing activities includes 5 or 6 different activity structures, and each structure is presented with at least one example activity that has been classroom-tested and shared by teachers on the Internet.

It is my hope that by providing you with activity structures, rather than a potpourri of lesson plans, you will be empowered to design effective educational telecomputing experiences for your students that are curricularly-based and adapted to suit their particular learning needs. This idea (and an earlier version of these activity classes and structures) was first presented in the May 1993 "Mining the Internet" column. The sample activities that follow are expansions upon the content of that article.

There are six different educational telecomputing activity structures that can be considered to be within the problem solving genre. They are information searches, electronic process writing, sequential creations, parallel problem solving, simulations, and social action projects.

Information Searches

In this type of online activity, students are provided with clues, and must use reference sources (either electronic or paper-based) to solve problems. For example, Tom Clauset of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, developed the GeoGame, in which each of 20 participating groups of students provides the same eight pieces of information about their school's location (i.e., latitude, time zone, population, direction from capital city, etc.). The coordinators of the game then scramble the city names, and all groups use reference materials such as maps, atlases, and books to match the cities with the information sets. The winning class is the class with the most correct matches.

A similar project for children in upper elementary grades was coordinated by Dorothy Whitney and the technology committee at Elsmere Elementary School in Delmar, New York. Called Where in the World is the Mystery Elementary School?, the project provided sets of clues about fictitious elementary schools in real places in the world, then asked participants to use whatever research tools they had available to deduce the "mystery city." Each set of clues contained six types of information. For example,

School #1 Clues: Find the location of the mystery school located in this city, country:

Artistic: One of my museums houses one of the world's finest archaeological collections - dig that!

Mathematical: Some of my monuments are named for the name of the geometric SHAPE they are!

Scientific: I have a very hot, arid climate, with an average annual temperature of 21 deg C (70 deg F) and average rainfall of 25 mm (1 Inch) - dry and hot, that's all I've got!

Geographic: I am the largest city on my entire continent!

Cultural: Many of ny very unique and special historic landmarks, including many mosques, 'cause tourism to be a very important part of my economy - Come one, come all !!

Historical: "Friends, Romans, Countrymen ..." - about 2000 years ago, the Romans built a fortress called Babylon on my current site.

WHERE AM I????????????????????

Electronic Process Writing

Students in Trevor Owen's English classes in Montreal, Quebec (Canada) regularly posted the poems that they wrote to newsgroups sponsored by Simon Fraser University, so that other students in Canada could offer feedback in an electronic version of process writing sessions. Mr. Owen has also been able to enlist the assistance of professional writers, such as the poet Lionel Kearns, to offer constructive criticism...and to receive some of the same (from the students), in response to pieces in progress.

Sequential Creations

An intriguing kind of artistic problem-solving has emerged on the Internet, in which participants progressively create either a common written text or a shared visual image. Yvonne Andres and Mary Jacks, from Oceanside High School in California, for example, helped their students to start a sequential text by writing the first few stanzas of a poem about world peace. They then sent their work on to students in a different school, who read the stanzas already written and added their own. This process continued until the poem had circled the world several times, and had grown to nearly epic length.

Another type of sequential creation involves progressive construction of visual images. Ed Stastny (ed@cwis.unomaha.edu), from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, organizes such "visual art collaboration exercises" as a series called Synergy. The following online announcement describes how one of these projects was conducted:

SYNERGY is the name for a continuing series of visual art collaboration exercises designed to weave the net even more strongly and instigate communication on all levels between participants.

CROSSWIRE is the second in the series (the first was REVOLT) and will work like this:

- you send in an original, but unfinished image. This can be done via uuencoded email, FTP upload, or by sending in a copy via normal surface post. All images will end up in GIF or JPG digital format.

- accompanying your original image, you will send a one or two line text description of your image. If you do not provide one, we will write it. The text description is to be integrated into a large text file that other participants can browse...deciding which image they wish to manipulate.

- there are three stages...
STARTER, MANIPULATION and FINISHED. The initial image you send in is your "starter" image. Any "starter" manipulated by another participant is then a "manipulated" image. Any "manipulated" image that is manipulated to completion is called a "finished" image.

- a sub-directory called CROSSWIRE will be opened up in the OTIS directory at the FTP site SunSite.UNC.EDU. On July 12th, this directory will be filled with "starter" images from other CROSSWIRE participants. You will then choose as many images as you like to manipulate, get them from the FTP site and go wild and synergetic. - when you finish manipulating an image, you will return it to us via email, FTP or snail-mail, as described above.

If you would like to see some of the results of Synergy's first image creation collaboration, they are posted for anonymous FTP retrieval at: sunsite.unc.edu in the subdirectory path: /pub/multimedia/pictures/OTIS/collabs/REVOLT
More information about how to FTP files on the Internet can be found in the December/January and February 1993 "Mining the Internet" columns.

Parallel Problem Solving

With this kind of activity, a similar problem is presented to students in several locations, which they solve separately at each site, then share their successful problem-solving methods electronically. Jim Kuhl, from Central Square Middle School in New York, for example, invited teachers and their students to replicate an environmental science experiment that he calls Fishy Habits:


Surprisingly, when students are asked this question many say no. Once the FISHY HABITS experimental procedure has been explained to students they still believe that no changes will occur in the fish's behavior. Students predict no real change in the behavior of the fish.

PROCEDURE - After setting up an aquarium containing no more than 5 fish students observe and tabulate the number of times the fish swim to the top of the tank during three distinct experimental phases. During the first phase students tally the number of random trips made to the top of the tank by the fish. During the second phase students count trips made to the top when the fish are fed. When feeding the fish during phase 2 the filter/aerator in the fish tank is unplugged (a strong environmental change). During the final phase of the experiment students once again tally trips to the top, however, the filter/aerator is once again turned off without the addition of food. Will the fish visit the top of the tank thinking that turning off the filter/aerator means that food has been added? Join us in a replication of the experiment and find out.

Over the past three years we have "perfected" this experiment during our unit on animals and have developed many ways of standardizing our procedures. We wonder if others would achieve the same results that we have seen.

Alan Hodson and Carol Hooper, who coordinate the MathMagic project from two middle schools in El Paso, Texas, provide mathematical word problems every two weeks to teams of students to solve, but the teams contain groups of students from different schools in different geographic locations. Therefore, participants must use telecommunications tools to coordinate problem solving efforts, the selection of solutions to submit for evaluation, and the writing and presentation of these solutions according to a standard format.

Finally, Linda Delzeit (aa002@nptn.org), from Academy One on the Cleveland Freenet, has coordinated what she calls the TeleOlympics each spring for several years. On a preset day in May, participating students all over the world compete against others from their own schools in events that involve running, jumping, and throwing (see below). Their teachers then send the results of these events to Academy One so that a "virtual Olympics" can occur, with international winners in each event declared. There are four age/grade group classifications, and special rules have been established for students who use wheelchairs. The activity is organized as follows.

Group Classifications:

List of Events:

Educational Activities:

  1. Opening and Closing Ceremonies - e.mail exchange. On the Opening Day, each participating school should send a letter to each and every other participating school, wishing them good luck. On the Closing Day, letters of Congratulations should be sent to every other participating school. These letters can include additional information and questions as desired, and potentially lead to establishing permanent keypal relationships with these other schools. A list of internet/bitnet addresses of all participants will be mailed out prior to the Opening Ceremonies and a special mailing list or listserve will be available so that messages can be received by those with e.mail only capabilities.
  2. During the weeks prior to the TeleOlympics, schools are encouraged to post weekly reports on the progress of training of their athletes, weather conditions, or additional information of interest. This could include, but not limited to, stories of the Ancient Olympics, word searches in any language with the subject being the Olympics, and/or interviews/stories of athletes from their community who have participated in the Olympics. Individual athletes are also invited to share their training programs and results.
  3. Participating schools may also begin to contact each other and exchange private e.mail as the registrations get posted to the Parade of Nations/Schools area of the TeleOlympics menu in Academy One. Regular updates of who is involved will be mailed to those participants who have only e.mail contact with Academy One.
  4. The top three winners in each of the events and in each of the boys and girls age classifications can have their names, school identifications, national flags and a short biographical sketch posted to the Victory Platform. Teachers will be responsible for supplying the biographical sketches of all winners. It is advised that these biographies be one of the educational activities that each student prepares in case they are a winner. They can also be used to exchange with students in other countries.

As might be expected, this is an extremely popular activity.


On-line simulations are the telecomputing project type that requires the most coordination and maintenance, but the depth of learning possible and task engagement displayed by participants can convince project organizers to spend the additional time and effort necessary to make them work. Notable examples of successful on-line simulations include Centennial Launches, sponsored by the Cleveland Freenet's Academy One project, which was described in an electronic newsletter as follows:

CENTENNIAL LAUNCHES: Simulated Space Shuttle Program - At the core of these launches is a permanent full-scale mock-up of a space shuttle (called the "Centennial") complete with "Mission Control" which is located at University School in Shaker Heights, Ohio (Cleveland area). Schools around the world take various roles in each simulated space shuttle mission. These could include being another shuttle (doing a docking maneuver), secondary mission control, alternate landing sites (weather stations), solar disturbance observatories, and so forth.

Coordination and communications between the shuttle's mission control and other schools will be conducted through distributed conferences on the individual NPTN systems. Electronic mail is sent back and forth, hourly reports are posted, even real-time electronic "chats" can occur between mission control, astronauts, and supporting units.

Another kind of space mission simulation, coordinated by Chris Rowan and Penny Bond from Texas, is shared via a LISTSERV discussion group, and employs a number of different types of synchronous and asynchronous communications media to help students participate in the experience.

International Student Space Simulations

International Student Space Simulations is an exciting, dynamic teaching method that challenges students to design, construct, and live in a self-contained habitat for an extended period of time. It is a multilevel, interdisciplinary, action-based program that enables students to apply what they have learned towards the successful "launch," "orbit," and "splashdown" of an extended space simulation.

Throughout the simulation, student astronauts communicate with Mission Control technicians (also students) via 2-way radio, modem-equipped computers, and/or VCR cameras and monitors. Inside the habitat, astronauts perform experiments, work on previously recorded lessons, engage in simulated docking maneuvers, retrieve and repair satellites, prepare meals . . . The possibilities are endless.

Finally, an exciting series of simulations in international events and issues and global conflict resolution was sponsored by Catherine Schreiber-Jones and David Crookall of the University of Alabama. Called Project IDEALS, these simulations placed participating students in the roles of "high-level negotiators representing various countries at an international conference," who must, for example, "hammer out the text of a treaty governing the emissions of CFCs, the use of the ocean's resources, or the future of Antarctica." These exchanges were supported by remote access of sophisticated simulation management software called Polnet II, which was located at the University of Alabama.

Social Action Projects

It should be no surprise to global citizens living at the end of the 20th century that the Internet can serve as a context for "humanitarian, multicultural, action-oriented telecommunications projects" which involve the future leaders of our planet: our children. The PLANET Project ("People Linking Across Networks"), for example, involves a consortium of large Internet-accessible educational networks from which representatives are working together to create collaborative, meaningful social action projects in which children have primary responsibility for learning about and helping to tackle global issues of critical importance. PLANET participants have written petitions to the United Nations to protest conditions in Yugoslavia, brainstormed ideas about how to address the starvation and political unrest in Somalia, and planned for and carried out fundraising efforts to help to purchase "rope pumps for villages in Nicaragua that do not have access to clean water."

Seventh grade students from Edmonds, Washington decided to offer an incentive to other students to become involved in creative problem solving for global challenges by establishing the World Connections Fair. This effort was "designed to encourage and empower kids to be actively involved in making the world a better place." The program is described, in part, by its creators as follows:

Kids often feel that the world is all mixed up, but feel helpless to do anything about it. They can see answers to some of the world's most pressing problems, but wonder who would ever listen to them. The World Connections Network (WCN) would like them to know that they have the power to make the world a better place. This program is designed to help kids transform their creative thinking into actions that make a difference in their world. It will help them learn the skills they need to solve the social problems they choose.

As an incentive to be socially active in their communities, the WCN sponsors the World Connections Fair creative problem solving contest and the prize is a trip to Disneyland.

In classrooms, youth organizations, church groups or just a few friends, kids work in teams of four or more with adult advisors. Together they think about all the problems with the world - in their communities, country or anywhere. The team reviews the list of Project Focus Categories and chooses one. Now they learn how to change their world. With help and advise from their advisors and the World Connections Network, they plan and conduct their project.

Afterwards, they prepare a project presentation, using any medium they choose, and submit it to the World Connections Fair selections team. Two teams will be selected worldwide to participate in the Fair from each Project Focus Category. Travel arrangements to the Fair will be provided for four members chosen to be their team's Ambassadors to the Fair.

[material deleted]

The shape of the world is in their hands. Whether they're concerned about being responsible consumers, protecting endangered animals, feeding hungry people or stopping the violence in their communities, kids do have the power to change the world. They can make a difference.

Finally, students participating in the National Science Foundation's Global Schoolhouse Project , which was co-sponsored by 30 different organizations, used a variety of telecommunications media to share the results of their environmental research and problem-solving. Carl Malamud described project activity (in part) as follows:

For the past six weeks, schoolchildren in grades 5-8 have been conducting original research on the environment in their communities. With the help of a curriculum developed by the FrEdMail Foundation, they have conducted surveys and tests, have prepared videotapes and other materials, and have read Vice President Gore's "Earth in the Balance." The children are located in schools in Oceanside, California; Knoxville, Tennessee; Arlington, Virginia; and London, England.

Using the Internet, the children have been exchanging messages with each other using FrEdMail. They have also been using Cornell University's CU-SeeMe videoconferencing software and Sprint audioconference bridges to communicate with each other.

On April 28th, they will conduct a videoconference on the Internet to brief each other and national leaders on what can be done about the environment. Several prominent leaders have been invited to participate, and a variety of dignitaries and members of the media have been invited to observe.

Technically, the April 28 videoconference consists of CU-SeeMe running on Macintosh computers donated by Apple equipped with a camera. CU-SeeMe sends a video stream to a Sparcstation donated by Sun which acts as a central reflector, sending the video from one site to the other sites participating in the conference.

The potential for multi-disciplinary, forward-thinking, truly collaborative learning when involved in projects such as these is awesome. It is also interesting to note that many of the more sophisticated, interdisciplinary, "real life" online problem-solving projects focus their participants' attention upon the problem to solve (the "opportunity in work clothes"), rather than upon the telecommunications technologies used to share information among coworkers. This clear emphasis upon curricularly-integrated learning, rather than the technologies that can facilitate that learning, is perhaps one of the characteristics that makes Internet-based problem-solving projects so potentially powerful.

An Educational Telecomputing Archive

Would you like to learn more about any or all of these innovative educational telecomputing projects? If so, there is an Internet file archive subdirectory made just for you. Use the ftp command (described in the December/January 1992-93 "Mining the Internet" column) from your electronic account, or the ftpmail gateway service (presented in the April 1993 "Mining the Internet" article) via electronic mail to anonymously access the Texas Center for Educational Technology's server at this address:
Once connected, look in this subdirectory path:
...to find additional details on many of the activities mentioned above.

If you would like to share your ideas for telecomputing activities with me (and therefore with other visitors to the tcet.unt.edu archive), please send your activity descriptions, via electronic mail, to the Internet address listed below.

[Judi Harris, jbharris@tenet.edu; Department of Curriculum and Instruction; 406 Education Building; University of Texas at Austin; Austin, TX 78712-1294.]

Other "Mining the Internet" columns are available on the Learning Resource Server at the College of Education, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.