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Team on quest through Web, history

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 14, 1999

TAMPA -- Jonathan Strate's summer project won't earn him extra credit in school. But it could have a big payoff later -- a college scholarship.

All Strate and his five teammates have to do is develop an educational Web site that is judged better than those created by thousands of other students in an international competition sponsored by ThinkQuest (www.thinkquest.org).

"This is really a good chance for students and teachers to get together," said Strate, a junior at Tampa Catholic High School. He hopes the Web page his team produces will be used by teachers and students in the classroom.

The ThinkQuest Internet Challenge for students ages 12 to 19 is in its fourth year. Web sites must be finished by August and winners will be announced in the fall. At stake are scholarships of up to $25,000 each. (For students in grades 4 to 6, winners of the ThinkQuest Junior competition were announced last month. While the sign-up period for this year is over, students and teachers may want to check out the Web site for information for next year.)

The competition was created by Advanced Network & Services Inc., a non-profit organization that supports education and science programs. It encourages "Internet style" learning, with teams of up to three students and three coaches. This year's competition includes about 2,600 teams from around the world.

Concerns about kids and the Internet have increased since the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., in April. The shooters had a Web site that espoused racist and unpopular views, so some people want restrictions on what kids can see and do on the Web.

But educators see the Web as a potential gold mine for students to explore and learn, something the ThinkQuest organizers hope to encourage.

"It is a positive program for kids to participate in," said Lisa Ernst, director of the program. "We screen all their applications, and know the topics that they are covering." (Only a few student ideas haven't met the program's requirement to be educational.)

The organization has received messages from teachers who use the sites in their classrooms. (A library of the pages is available at ThinkQuest's site.) Strate, who moved to Florida a year ago, was a high school freshman in Virginia when a teacher gave him a packet about ThinkQuest. He had never created a Web page before, but ended up on teams that reached the semifinals of the competition the past two years.

Strate learned lessons that he is applying as captain of his team this year. Content counts, so he recruited Katy Guertin, a junior at Plant High School, to help develop the substance for the site. The other student is Peter Jacobs of Virginia Beach, Va., one of Strate's friends who worked with him previously on ThinkQuest.

As coaches, Strate recruited two Tampa Catholic teachers, Kevin Yarnell and Rod Stearns, and Jacobs' uncle, Michael John Khandelwal, a teaching assistant at the University of Southern California.

This, Strate says, could be the year for team 29083. Its page, which is still a work in progress, will be called All Abroad, a multimedia trip through history. The page will focus on geography and history around the world, with visitors traveling by train, plane or ship to historic sites.

For Stearns, a history teacher who says he is minimally computer literate, the content of the project -- both accuracy and presentation -- is important. He knows it can be a challenge to get today's high school students interested in history.

"A lot of students do not perceive history as their favorite subject," Stearns said. "Anything we can do is worthwhile."

For Yarnell, a physics teacher who is an experienced techie, the project presents an opportunity to show other teachers the educational capabilities of the Internet.

"They very much encourage people to collaborate over distances," Yarnell said. "Two of the team members I've never met. It's really kind of neat." The bay area members of the team meet about once a month, with the others staying in contact by e-mail.

For Guertin at Plant High, who met Strate through church, it is "an opportunity to learn" for someone who is "pretty computer illiterate." She has enjoyed the collaboration, sharing ideas -- the whole experience.

"It's been awesome so far," she said.

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