Articles on Professional Development

Re-printed from Microsoft K12 Education

Sharing and Uniting Communities:
The International Schools CyberFair Contest

By Elisabeth Keating

"Technology has a unique ability to expand children's learning. It gives children many more opportunities than they would normally have. It makes it possible for kids anywhere to be discovered. If you have a talent, or a message, you can share it with the world. And that's very exciting."
— Yvonne Marie Andres, director of the Global Schoolhouse and founder of CyberFair

In Fairbanks, Alaska, a sixth-grade boy carefully adjusts the focus of his camera as he prepares to take a photo of a huge moose grazing in the schoolyard. In Nevada City, California, a fifth-grade girl interviews a park ranger about the history of a local gold mine. And in Oceanside, California, a group of seventh and eighth graders brainstorm ways to promote a local program that donates socks to the homeless.

What do Alaskan moose, gold nuggets and socks for the homeless have in common? They are the subjects of Web sites created by 273 K-12 schools for this year's International Schools CyberFair, an annual contest sponsored by Global Schoolhouse. By participating in the contest, students deepen their understanding of the communities in which they live and then share that knowledge with the world.

"Share and Unite"

The theme of CyberFair is "Share and Unite." Each school creates a Web site that showcases an aspect of its community, along with a project narrative. Children work with local artists, historians, businesses and the rest of their community to research what's special about their local area. They also learn about other communities throughout the world by reviewing others' Web sites. Enrollment in CyberFair is free, and schools are encouraged to start their projects in the fall.

Says Yvonne Marie Andres, director of Global Schoolhouse and founder of CyberFair, "Most kids don't think that where they live is special. Once they start doing guided research, they develop a greater appreciation for their local community. And the Internet can help them to learn about other communities as well."

The peer review process determines the top 10 sites in eight categories: local leaders; community groups and special populations; businesses and organizations; local specialties; local attractions; historical landmarks; and environmental awareness and issues.

A panel of judges, the review board, then rates the top five in each category for design, content and the project narrative. In selecting a winner, says Andres, "What was important was the children's voice, how they defined their community, and how they gave back to it."

Judges for the international review board are chosen from educators, education professionals, people from educational organizations and business people whose companies are involved with education. Winners receive gifts from sponsors of the fair, which include Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Koz, Canon, GTE, Apple Computer, MCI, MovieWorks and more.

The Magnificent Moose Project

The four-legged topic of Bill Ernst's sixth-grade class at the Anne Hopkins Wien Elementary School in Fairbanks, Alaska is hard to miss: "There are Alaskan moose—the largest in the world—all over the place," he says. "People who visit here are amazed, but we just take them for granted. We realized that lots of people have never seen a moose, and decided we'd like to tell the world about them."

The students first brainstormed "moose categories" and then divided into teams to research and write specific sections. They contacted Alaska Fish and Wildlife and local scientists and historians, and did extensive book research. "We tried the Internet to see what was available on moose, and we found it was very moose-weak," explains Ernst. Kids, parents and teachers took hundreds of moose photos. Several moose walked right into the schoolyard one day, leading to an impromptu photo session from behind the classroom windows.

It's hard to imagine an area of moose lore that isn't covered in the site: There are moose anecdotes (including a hair-raising tale of how a moose got a swing set tangled up in his antlers, eventually leaving it a free form sculpture in somebody's yard), student drawings of moose, information on Native Americans' use of moose, maps depicting where moose live in North America, information on moose anatomy, the deer family, moose predators, moose food and a glossary of moose terms. "One of our most interesting pages was about dangerous moose encounters. We also did a fun section on moose droppings and the many uses for them," says Ernst.

"My sixth graders are very computer-literate so they did a lot of the scanning themselves," says Ernst. He helped with the HTML coding, though he points out that "10 of the kids have their own Web pages already."

Students presented their moose research to younger students in the school. They continue to field the questions of visitors to their Web site. "We get two to five messages a day from all over the world, asking us questions about moose, and we look up the answers and get back to them," explains Ernst. "The kids feel really good about sharing their knowledge. We feel we are filling a big gap on the Internet." The Magnificent Moose Project came in fourth in the Local Attractions category, and the school received $1,500 worth of software.

Socks for the Homeless

At the Jefferson Middle School (the school that houses Global Schoolhouse) in Oceanside, California, just outside San Diego, seventh and eighth graders decided to do a CyberFair project on a local program for the homeless ( administered by the Brother Benno Foundation. The program, a drive to collect socks, received Honorable Mention in the Local Specialties category.

Rosie, 13, a student at Jefferson, describes how she began the research: "First, we interviewed Brian Cook [a lay minister] about his program, how he realized that lots of homeless people don't have socks, and how he tries to help collect them. Then we wrote down everything and put it on the Web site. Finally, we created a chronology of the whole sock drive, explaining how the socks are collected and organized every year."

The students got Microsoft® FrontPage® and taught themselves how to create Web sites and link pages. "It was hard at times," says Rosie. "One day we just sat there thinking for an hour before we figured out how to do a Web link. It was great when it worked!"

"The neat thing about this technology is that your kids can come in and teach you," says Heidi Hammond, staff member with Global Schoolhouse. "A problem would come up, and I wouldn't know how to solve it. I'd say, 'When you figure it out, come back and tell me how you did it.' And they did!"

In addition to technology skills, students also experienced a deeper compassion and empathy. "The kids learned there are families that are just like them, but that are needy at this time and therefore need the assistance of organizations like this one," says Hammond. As Rosie puts it, "I never thought about how important socks are before. It was great to realize we had helped tell people about it, when we saw the huge pile of socks our community had collected at the end of the year."

The California Gold Rush

"We live in an area that is oozing with history," says Cathie Mendenhall, a fifth-grade teacher at Deer Creek School in Nevada City, California, a small Sierra Nevada town near Lake Tahoe and Grass Valley. A local train connected to the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s and brought the California gold rush to the area. Her class decided to create a Web site comparing Yesterday and Today in four areas: people, community, mining and transportation. Their Web site won second place in the Historical Landmarks category.

"We do not live in a substantially racially diverse community, so it is important to balance exposure to various races and cultures for our students," explains Mendenhall. "For our project, we accomplished this in many ways, including visiting historical sites such as the Chinese cemetery, hosting the Cornish Choir assembly, visiting museums to see actual artifacts, and interviewing local historians and anthropologists."

One student interviewed Norm Wilson, a famous archaeologist and expert on the Native Americans of Northern California, who showed the class artifacts and how they were used. The class also saw Native American basketry, which is repaired for museums and private collectors by a local craftsperson, Richard Manifor, using all natural materials.

Kaitlin, 11, interviewed a park ranger and a county historian and learned to scan photos. "One of the biggest challenges," she says, "was having to write up all the information we gathered and put it into our own words."

Kaitlin and other students are now helping to design a plaque commemorating the Chinese who helped build the railroad, which will be placed downtown. "It was really neat at the end, getting to see our finished Web site and then looking at other people's to see what they had done. We reviewed sites in Los Angeles, in Africa, in Australia and in Brazil," she says.

Adds Becky, 11, "I never knew before that the gold mine had to close because the price of gold fell. Working on the project taught me a lot about history and how to research things. I also learned about the Internet." Like Kaitlin, Becky enjoyed the peer review process: "There was a really cool site in Africa. They had a cartoon of an animal that turned into a man on top of their first page. It was neat!"

"Having a knowledge of our community's history gave students a greater sense of participation in our town," says Mendenhall. "Students met many new people, young and old, and learned about what others are doing to preserve the history of our town at many levels and through many projects."

Experiencing Local Culture

Perhaps the most important lesson of CyberFair is that it helps students experience their culture rather than reading about it in a book. As Mendenhall puts it, "CyberFair helped my students understand the past that formed the community, know the present and prepare for the future as citizens. They learned that they can participate in the community and be actively involved to improve and make a difference in government decisions, organizations and businesses. They learned what it is like to participate in a community rather than just live in a community."

In a world that may seem too big to comprehend, CyberFair offers a remarkable opportunity for students to use the Internet to bring their community closer to others—and to experience it themselves.


About the author: Elisabeth Keating is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in education. She has created lesson plans for Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia and edited books and magazines for Scholastic Inc., Viking Press, Children's Television Workshop and Thirteen/WNET Public Television. Her articles have been published in a variety of magazines including Scholastic Early Childhood Today, Crayola Kids, Parenting a Teen and Creative Classroom.