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Purple arrow (1137 bytes)A Global Lab Story: A Moment of Glory in San Antonio

REFERENCES: The following description includes an article that was originally published in the newsletter, Hands On!:  Tinker, B. & Berenfeld, B. (1994). Hands On!, 17(2).  It is reprinted here with permission of TERC.

Other references used to develop this resource are:

Weiss, Jiri, Jr. (1993). Real-world science in today's world.  Technology & Learning, 13(6), 20-24
TERC. (1993-94). Global Lab Annual Report. Cambridge, MA: Author

Description of classroom practice:

CONTEXT:  Through a full-year, interdisciplinary introductory science course that makes use of Internet technologies, Global Lab brings together over 100 classrooms from around the world for the purpose of enhancing secondary school science education. In developing an international, environmental curriculum, groups comprised of 10-12 classrooms collaborate in gathering data, sharing research, and distributing knowledge. In studying issues of global and ecological importance, classrooms also telecommunicate with scientists in the field.

Developed by TERC and funded by the National Science Foundation, Global Lab hopes to improve science education through (1) project-based learning, (2) the use of micro-computer-based laboratories (MBL), and (3) computer-based telecommunications. Since its inception, over 10,000 students from 400 classrooms in 22 countries have used Global Lab to conduct collaborative research in studying environmental issues.

PRACTICE: Peter McLean's 9th through 12th grade biology classes at St. Andrews School in Delaware were involved in Global Lab . Students used computers to record and analyze data collection, shared their findings with 90 participating schools (via Global Lab), and communicated with other students via 39 different area network services, ranging from America OnLine (AOL) to EcoNet, an international telecommunications network specializing in ecology.

The students at St. Andrews plotted a two-kilometer section of forest. As a measure of air pollution, they kept track of the differences in the number and condition of lichens. On a daily basis, McLean's 12th graders took daily measurements of temperature and precipitation; on a weekly basis, they measured dissolved oxygen and acidity through pond water test sampling. McLean's students also studied plankton, insects, and bacteria, and conducted a bird breeding census. All of their information was tracked and analyzed and then shared with schools around the world.


One of the greatest benefits of this project was in students being able to compare data in two far-off countries. McLean wrote, "When we collect data about ozone pollution levels, we want to know how they compare to schools in California and Milan, Italy. Part of the process of becoming computer-literate and world-wise is knowing that other places in the world have similar problems."

The following quotes are by other teachers involved in the Global Laboratory project.

"As traditional classrooms have been very insular, nations have also been insular as they consider educating their citizens. In contrast, this project is developing a model which is intended in a very explicit fashion to be appropriate for science instruction anywhere in the world. There are some important implications here. Creating common links with science classrooms in many countries can be a powerful motivational tool promoting a scientifically literate population and a large cadre of scientific specialists. Simultaneously, it will begin to create the international links and cultural understandings which must precede any global solutions to our environmental problems." (Greg Lockett, Physics Teacher, California)

"It is our core curriculum and from it we build all other subjects. When we study water in Global Lab we study water in history, its relationship to wars and so on, its placement in the world, how cities are created on it...Using the Global Lab to generate the core, then integrating all subjects into it helps the students to study an area completely." (A Montessori teacher in Massachusetts)

Hands On!
ŠTERC, 1993 

Affordable Technology
Global Telecommunications as a Teaching Tool
Scientists On-Line
Real-World Curriculum
Balance Between Science and Pedagogy
The Global Lab Future


The Global Laboratory class at Pease Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, had a problem. As a result of the class enrolling in Global Lab's research strand on indoor air quality, the students had discovered that the quality of the air in their classroom was poor. With the teacher's help, the students organized themselves into an Air Force, delegating to each member certain tasks for investigating the problem.

At the beginning of the 1992-93 school year, the Global Laboratory project had asked each of its 100 participating schools to select a study site. The schools were located in 18 countries, and the study site that each class chose to examine scientifically was an area of its local environment. For the Global Lab class at Pease, the selection was simple. Because the students at this inner-city school were prohibited from leaving school grounds, the class chose its own classroom. Led by teacher Linda Maston, a three-year veteran of Global Lab, the students first examined their classroom's environmental conditions with a set of qualitative activities, then followed up with a battery of measurements. Subsequently, the students became concerned with the air quality of their classroom. When Global Lab asked the schools to conduct in-depth research, the Pease class quickly decided to pursue its air quality studies.

Global Lab supported the students with the TERC Air Pump, a variety of air testing tubes, and instructional materials. After a series of tests, the students detected no appreciable sulfur dioxide, ozone, or carbon monoxide levels in their classroom, but found consistently high carbon dioxide levels. They determined that over the course of a school day CO2 levels exceeded the recommended limit of 1000 parts per million set by ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers).

Mindful of complaints about poor air throughout the school, the students conducted a schoolwide survey of air quality in other locations and sought the opinions of the faculty. Equipped with their Global Lab tools and following strict scientific protocols, the students measured CO2 levels in other classrooms and found these to be as high as 2100 ppm. Outdoor CO2 readings were 350 ppm. The students discovered that most of the faculty shared their reservations about air quality at the school. In fact, the only teachers who did not complain about the air were those working in shops with large garage doors that were often open. The class's CO2 measurements and survey results were presented to the school board, which dispatched four environmental control officers to investigate. Linda reported on the computer network what ensued.

"They [the officers] first went into the counseling office where the counselors and teachers told them about what was going on. They were not impressed, so they were brought to our classroom. As soon as we pulled out the data and the graphs showing the patterns that we had found, they suddenly started to take notes. "

The officers decided to make readings with their professional equipment. Linda continued:

"The moment of glory came this afternoon when they showed up with the same kind of tubes we had, and their fancy pump got exactly the same reading as we had with our syringe version!"

The students' actions had demanded responsibility and results; in turn, the school s ventilation system was repaired. Not only had the students conducted real scientific research, their findings had made a true difference in their lives and in their community.

"The CO2 study was [the students' ] pride and joy. They were just so pleased and proud of themselves that they had managed to do what nobody else had been able to accomplish in 17 years. To have their data taken seriously by adults in general, and the district in particular, was just awesome for them. They are so used to failure that it's hard to convince them sometimes that they are doing good work. "

The experience of this Global Lab class, although extraordinary, is not unique. Rather, it illustrates the kinds of activities occurring in Global Lab classrooms. By relying on a multifaceted strategy, the project can introduce the classrooms to real-world investigations, technologies, communications, and collaboration all of which supports student-based research.

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Affordable Technology

Scientific investigations require highly accurate measurements, which in turn necessitate expensive instrumentation. Yet the Global Laboratory project can offer scientific tools that are state of the art and affordable to schools.

TERC has developed the means to adapt sophisticated instruments for secondary school use. Billions of dollars are spent annually to develop technologies, but middle and high school students traditionally have to wait decades before advances trickle down to them. With the exception of computers, the teaching tools of many high school labs are still nineteenth- century technologies. With its technical expertise and understanding of pedagogical needs, TERC bridges industry and education and transfers technologies to science classrooms. From such industries as electronics, biotechnology, and space, TERC identifies advanced technologies with potential educational applications, adapts these for low cost and ease of use, and makes modified versions for school use.

For example, the inexpensive but effective air testing tubes that made such a difference in Linda Maston's class are state-of-the-art instruments based on the latest advances in physical chemistry and gas chromatography. These tubes require costly, high-tech pumps to draw precise amounts of sampled air. Global Lab's engineering team designed an inexpensive, hand-drawn syringe pump that, despite its simplicity, is accurate. The entire Global Lab Starter Tool Kit, which enables students to measure precisely a variety of key environmental parameters (such as soil and air temperatures at three horizons, CO2 and tropospheric ozone levels, and airborne particulates), costs about $75 or a fraction of the costs of similar professional equipment.

The Global Lab Starter Tool Kit may be the low end of available tools, yet it empowers students to make all the basic measurements required in the Global Lab curriculum. To meet the needs of schools with advanced pedagogical objectives, Global Lab offers sophisticated instruments, such as the Total Column Ozonometer [See: Student Research for the Ozone ], ion-selective probes, and the remote environmental monitoring station. When compared with the project s basic tools, these instruments are high end as well as accurate, yet much less expensive than the professional equivalents.

Global Telecommunications as a Teaching Tool

Computer-based telecommunications makes Global Lab possible. Structurally and metaphorically, Global Lab is designed as a real-world networked science laboratory. Over dedicated teleconferences on EcoNet, students can converse with their colleagues from around the world and post messages on various bulletin boards. In schools from New York to Moscow, from the deserts of Qatar to the Arctic Circle, Global Lab students know that they belong to an interactive global village populated by teenagers such as themselves.

During the 1992-93 school year, more than 2,000 messages were posted on the Global Lab network. As if in a science institute, students have access to an electronic bulletin board, an electronic library, a teleconference for projectwide discussions, and another that serves as a marketplace for research ideas and collaborators. In addition, each research group has its own teleconference. Telecommunications not only serves as an important motivational tool that allows students to share their results, it establishes true scientific collaborations between participating schools, scientists, and TERC. After the Pease class made its CO2 readings, the students posted a request for collaborative data:

"What are some of the CO2 levels that people are getting inside their various classrooms? Ours are just extremely high."

From their Global Lab colleagues in Aiken, South Carolina, the students received the following message:

"Hello San Antonio: We read your report about carbon dioxide and have a similar case here in Aiken, SC. All of our classrooms have windows but we did a project which tried to test the carbon dioxide levels in the trailers where a lot of our classes are. Dr. Borst thought that they would have higher levels. Not!! The regular classrooms had higher levels... We explained this by the hallways. Regular classrooms open into hallways, while the trailers open into the outdoors... So when the class changes you get fresh air in the trailers. In the regular classroom you get stale air from the hall. Kennedy Middle School, Aiken, SC"

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Scientists On-Line

To support the schools that are on-line and conducting original research, Global Lab continues to expand its network of on-line scientists. The scientists who participate in this project have demonstrated that collaborations between scientists and students are productive. When Global Lab posted on several telecommunications networks a call for on-line scientists to support air quality school research, the following message was one that arrived promptly.

"From: Ken Muzal: Specialty: Air Quality Measurements, Industrial Hygiene Chemistry, Analytical Chemistry. I would like to join the corps of Global Lab scientists..."

In his message, Ken outlined the "vital" air quality issues on which students could focus their research, provided his e-mail address, and offered to support research projects in the future. His contribution was appreciated immediately. From their experiments, Linda's students had concluded that high CO2 levels were the cause of the poor air at Pease. But after the students held discussions with Ken Muzal, they came to report that "given the nature of our school, how it was built, and the pattern of CO2 levels that we had observed . . .it was very obvious that we had a problem with inadequate ventilation." From this communication, the students deepened their understanding of cause-and-effect relationships, and realized that the level of CO2 was a measure of the effectiveness of the ventilation system.

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Real-World Curriculum

To succeed, the Global Laboratory project had to convince Linda's teenagers that its goals and activities were something other than an irrelevant academic distraction. In the course of studying environmental conditions in their classroom, the students changed their attitudes dramatically. In an e-mail communication, Linda noted their transformation:

"The constant whining I endured from them at the first of the year diminished to the point that they were quite put out with me if for some reason they couldn't do Global Lab that week."

Linda's students had been stimulated not by academic problems presented in textbooks, but by real-world problems that clearly affected their lives. For the educational process to be most effective, students must want to learn. They are motivated to do so when they appreciate the relevance of the curriculum. What could be more relevant than examining the very air you breathe?

Environmental studies may be the scientific field of the greatest interest to today's teenagers. These research topics hold the same urgency for students as did the space program for another generation in the 1960s. Global Lab draws upon this concern to root science education in a real-world setting with real-world relevance. The project draws students away from the tedium of textbook studies and lab exercises and engages them in issues concerning the environmental health of their homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Students' studies range from testing pesticide residues and water quality to measuring the thickness of the ozone layer and the quality of the indoor air.

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Balance Between Science and Pedagogy

Merely offering technologies to the classroom does not in itself enhance science education. The core philosophy of Global Lab is to teach basic investigative skills, methodologies, and scientific ethics to students before they undertake advanced research projects. Global Lab introduces students to the discipline of science as it promotes the intellectual freedoms students need to direct their own research. These disparate goals are achieved by closely directing student research at the beginning of the year and offering open-ended research opportunities at the end.

In the first semester, the curriculum guides students through a series of skill-building procedures called Environmental Snapshots. At the same hour on prearranged days, Global Lab schools make synchronized environmental measurements of their study sites, using low-cost, high-tech tools. Students collate their data into templates, and these data form a projectwide database. These directed research procedures prepare students with invaluable skills such as data collecting and techniques for collaboration.

In the second semester, Global Lab engages students in open-ended research by asking them to choose one of nine topics for additional investigation. The project supports this research with instrumentation, on-line scientists, and joint methodologies, but the students themselves develop and implement their research strategies. After completing Global Environmental Snapshots, Linda's students could use their research skills to investigate scientifically the indoor air quality at their school.

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The Global Lab Future

The Global Laboratory is more than curriculum and technologies: it is a global community of students, teachers, and scientists engaged in real-world, hands-on, interdisciplinary research. Unlike traditional curriculum the project is dynamic and ongoing. In the 1993-94 school year, Global Lab students will build upon the databases organized during the 1992-93 school year. These students will establish new environmental monitoring sites at which future generations will learn and practice the diverse skills of true science.

Article Reference

ASHRAE Standard: Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality. (ANSI/ASHRAE 62-1989). Atlanta: American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. .

Global Lab Project, TERC, 2067 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140. Phone: (617) 547-0430; fax: (617) 349-3535

The Global Lab project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

ŠEducation Development Center, Inc.