The Roadside Heritage Project and US 395

The Reno Gazette Journal reports that a CD will highlight U.S. 395’s history. This is the result of a $2,500,000 grant to create interpretive audio that will “make people aware of the region’s natural, scientific and cultural history as well as festivals and points of interest in the communities along the way.” A 13 part audio program is being planned. Middle school students will learn how to use recording equipment to interview scientists for the project. Distribution will be via the internet and also on CD at various commercial interests on the highway.

The National Science Foundation funding is going to UNR’s Academy for the Environment and the College of Education’s Raggio Research Center. Partners in the effort include the Eastern Sierra Institute for Collaborative Education and the University of California-Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science.

On the editorial side of things, I wonder.

This sounds like a 2.5 million dollar federal grant for a gimmicky middle school education program rationalized as a rather standard region promotional effort. Being a School of Education project implies that the ‘science’ is going to be highly flavored with the political taint du jour (See Wellington Grey — A physics teacher begs for his subject back: An open letter to the AQA board and the UK Department for Education). Similar projects, in the form of magazines, are available at no cost to the taxpayer.

This project seems to be tugging at the technology dreams that have been so common in education over the last thirty years. The mention of learning about “digital recording” for middle school students is one of several examples in the report. Recent studies indicate that a lot of the ‘computers in the classroom’ projects have not met the dreams often used to rationalize the expense. The art and science of recording an interview is made somewhat easier with newer technology but the basic craft is still the same whether digital or analog. The education establishment is finding that the same idea holds true in many areas. Information technologies (e.g. computers) sometimes make things easier but they are not a substitute for the person who knows what he is trying to do.

Then there is the ‘competition.’ Kids in the car nowadays often have DVD players to watch their favorite movie or a video game console to keep them busy. How is an audio only CD going to compete with this when the scene outside the window cannot?

US 395 is a living laboratory. The eastern slopes of the Sierras provide many opportunities to learn about geology and biology and their supporting sciences. A lecture on CD is one thing. Having guided stops to examine rocks and plants in the micro as well as the macro would be real science. You need to be able to see and touch and smell as well as hear some dude in an interview. You need someone to point out to you what identifies a rock or a bio-zone or a geologic feature and how it fits into the rest of its environment.

There are now a few guidebooks that will take you step by step along some route. I have one for the geology along US 50 written by a UNR professor. This ancient media, the book, allows me to match its contents to my current location. It provides illustrations and pictures to point out to me what I need to see. It could easily be edited for a middle school level experience and enhanced with field and laboratory exercises. The book is an ‘appropriate’ technology for this sort of effort. Multi media, even limited to audio only, does not match the requirements for interruptions, reference, or detail. A book wouldn’t take 2.5 million tax dollars, either.

For another example, see The I-580 freeway extension construction website. This is a Nevada DOT site about the freeway between Reno and Carson City. If you want to learn about a difficult highway engineering project, that is one web site to visit. You can even view web-cams of work in progress. The site is an example of how the web (modern information technology) can be used in an incremental way to support learning. It is a contrast to the monolithic approach taken in Roadside Heritage Project and may have a lesson waiting to be learned about the best way to direct efforts to educate the public about US 395.

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