WHY KIDS LOVE COMPUTER NETS Using technology to escape the bounds of the classroom, children are learning to work in ways you never dreamed of when you were their age.
By Elizabeth Corcoran REPORTER ASSOCIATE Jacqueline M. Graves

(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE RALPH BUNCHE public school sits squarely in Harlem, surrounded by the splintered glass and concrete trappings of inner-city life. Nearby avenues echo with police sirens, blaring music, and angry shouts. But upstairs in room 409, Hamidou Diori is exploring another world altogether -- by way of electronic networks. On the Macintosh screen before him, the 13-year-old seventh-grader maneuvers his computer mouse across a collection of icons that represent stored files and programs. With a few quick clicks, Hamidou has hooked into Internet, the sprawling electronic highway system that by a recent estimate connects more than 15 million people and thousands of universities, government offices, and businesses in 60 countries. Another click and Hamidou has called up a gopher, a kind of electronic guide. Once programmed to search for information on a given subject, it will burrow through databases and bulletin boards that are connected to Internet but reside on computers scattered around the globe. Hamidou's goal: Find a topic for a science project on recycling. He gives the gopher a few key words; in seconds the program makes a preliminary search and flashes a list of possible sources on his screen. Soon Hamidou is scanning feisty, fact-filled messages posted on the bulletin boards by graduate students, professors, and managers in many countries, debating the merits of recycling. If those exchanges don't provide the inspiration Hamidou needs, he will float a few questions of his own across the network. ''I use a whole bunch of databases,'' he nonchalantly tells a visitor. ''You ask these people for help -- and they give it to you.'' From Harlem to Honolulu, electronic networks are sparking the kind of excitement not seen in America's classrooms since the space race. That contest in the 1960s inspired a generation of students to become scientists and engineers. The advent of computer networks could have even more profound effects. In scores of programs and pilot projects, networks are changing the way teachers teach and students learn. Last spring, for example, instead of merely reading about life in Russia from outdated books, schoolchildren in Minnesota exchanged electronic mail with their peers on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia. Students across America tracked the progress of four men biking 10,000 miles in Africa, via reports filed by the riders on an international teachers' network. In the process, the kids learned the continent's geography. Still others got a taste of scientific collaboration by measuring the oxygen in local lakes and comparing results with peers around the world. By tapping into the nets, kids discover ways of working and communicating that weren't available to their parents -- and that will powerfully enhance their prospects when they join the work force of the 21st century. The networks may also play a key role in helping U.S. schools overcome their notorious weakness in teaching math, science, and geography. That's partly why network projects have grants from influential high-tech donors such as IBM, Boeing, AT&T, and Xerox. Bob Hughes, Boeing's corporate director of education relations, looks to computer networks as a key to turning out students who adapt readily to change and who solve problems by seeking out and applying new ideas. The traditional classroom, he says, is singularly ill suited to producing lifelong learners: ''Right now, you've got 30 little workers who come into a room, sit in rows, follow instructions from a boss, and can't talk to one another. School is the last time they'll ever see that model.'' As many as 750,000 U.S. lower, middle, and high school students took part in networking projects during the past school year, estimates Seth J. Itzkan, an educational technology consultant in Houston. National Geographic Kids Network, the largest and most sophisticated, helped students in more than 10,000 elementary school classes plunge into science by conducting experiments and then pooling data with kids doing similar work in other parts of the world. Some 35,000 kids plugged into the Learning Network, a 23-nation social studies and literature program run by AT&T. Tens of thousands of students traded electronic messages and did research using Internet and education networks managed by state and grassroots organizations. IS NETWORKING just another fad? For decades, educators have fantasized about computers as a classroom cure-all: a way to engage slow and hard-to-reach students while letting smart kids race ahead. But each wave of techno- enthusiasm has led to disappointment. Too often schools scrimped on teacher training, software, and maintenance, ensuring that the technology remained alien to all but a few. After the hoopla subsided, the computers wound up as institutionally approved videogames or dusty, unused fixtures in classroom closets. But connect a computer to a network, and the technology can come to life, bringing children the excitement of the outside world. ''I have kids nudging each other to get off the computer,'' says Sandra McCourtney, who runs a computer lab at Sarasota High School and co-founded Egret International, a nonprofit network in Florida. The networks also offer much-needed help in an age when teachers often feel overwhelmed by large classes and the problems that many kids lug to school instead of a brown-bag lunch. Says Fenn Ketchoyian, who has spent nearly 12 years teaching inner-city kids at East High School in Salt Lake City, and whose students got access to Internet this year for the first time: ''I have never seen my students so involved, interested, and excited. Using networks may be a way to really hook these students into staying in school.'' As students join communities outside their classrooms, too, the role of the teacher changes. ''You need to be a manager, not a dispenser of information,'' says Ed Barry, who jointly teaches 50 sixth-graders at the School Street School in Milton, Vermont, a serene, red-brick building perched on a small rise not far from dairy farms and maple trees. Half a dozen Macintoshes ring Barry's classroom. Two have modems, connecting the class to the Vermont EdNet, a state-funded network for teachers and students. ''I have sources all over the state,'' Barry says. ''If I can't answer a question, someone else can.'' Since putting his students on-line, Barry has spent less time lecturing and more time coaching students in where to find answers. When the class studies Egypt and the flooding of the Nile, Barry sends the kids to the office of the town clerk to ask how the cycles of the nearby Lamoille River affect zoning and to the computer network to collect data on how the Lamoille affects other towns. ''Physically the students go into the local community, and electronically they go into the world,'' he says. Network-assisted teaching is demanding. Barry had to provide most of the equipment himself, and put in long hours figuring out how to use it. Even so, he says, he often finds himself having to admit to students how much he doesn't know. Increasingly the students learn as much from one another as they do from any adult. On the AT&T Learning Network, elementary, middle, and high school classes take part in creative writing groups, contribute to an international student newspaper, and learn about other governments and cultures. AT&T organizes activity on the network in six- to 15-week ''sessions'' that have names like Society's Problems and Computer Chronicles (cost per 15-week session: $375). Students swap essays with their peers around the country and abroad, and then questions -- and critiques -- fly back and forth. At the end of each session, the program publishes the best work in a booklet mailed -- the old-fashioned way -- to participating classes. THE EXCHANGES spur students to work hard on their writing, according to Margaret M. Riel, a consultant in Encinitas, California, who helped develop the network. ''When kids are writing for their peers, they take on a different style,'' she says. In a study she conducted with colleagues in Israel, Riel found that students typically wrote more clearly and carefully when they knew that other students would scrutinize their work. National Geographic Kids Network aims to teach by propelling children into the thick of scientific debates. In the past four years, well over a half- million elementary school children have taken part. Each class pays about $450 for teaching materials, software, maps, and on-line time in an eight-week course; among this year's offerings was an ecologically minded project called Too Much Trash. Students started by defining trash and plotting their own location and those of their network teammates on a map. In the weeks that followed, each class analyzed its own garbage output and cooked up schemes for generating less of it. (A typical task: ''Calculate the weight of the trash generated per student in each trash category . . . ((and)) send trash data to your research team.'') Besides having fun, students experienced the thrill of real science: collaborating internationally to piece together new knowledge. Kids Network is the brainchild of Bob Tinker, chief scientist at Terc, a nonprofit science and math education organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which developed the network and in 1989 turned it over to National Geographic. Earlier attempts to get kids on-line had fizzled, largely because teachers lacked the time and motivation to struggle with what seemed like fancy pen-pal systems. Tinker made networking easy by structuring the program like a regular lesson plan. Teachers get detailed instructions about how to run the science projects; the network serves mainly as a tool for sharing data and getting answers to questions. Tinker and his colleagues are now experimenting with a high school program called Global Lab. During last December's winter solstice, students around the world took part in a pilot project, rising before dawn to measure air and soil temperatures. Later they tapped into the network to analyze how their data reflected their geographic locations. Tinker recalls, ''One student wrote, 'I know the solstice is too big to grasp, but I feel like I touched it a little bit.' '' A growing number of on-line experiments partially funded by the National Science Foundation are putting kids in direct contact with scientists. Last year the Institute for Research on Learning, a nonprofit group in Palo Alto, California, founded by Xerox, helped middle-school math teachers work with scientists from the Sandia National Laboratories to develop a curriculum based on designing a mock research station in Antarctica. The object, says director Shelley Goldman, was ''to attract kids who traditionally drop out and make them feel confident that they could see the world mathematically.'' When 160 seventh- and eighth-graders in the San Francisco Bay Area drew up blueprints and built models of their Antarctica research stations this spring, once vague concepts like proportion became real. As the students spent time converting polar temperatures from Fahrenheit to Celsius, negative numbers finally made sense to them. Rather than thumbing through textbooks to resolve questions, classes consulted the Sandia scientists via electronic mail. Like many experts, Goldman believes that networks have powerful social potential: They put students of all backgrounds on an equal footing. At the Ralph Bunche School in Harlem, the computer center is the focus of a school- within-the-school for 160 volunteers from the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. Teacher Paul Reese says angry youngsters often cool off and come into their own when they work with the machines. Adds David Sherwood, a Columbia University sophomore who is a volunteer tutor at Ralph Bunche: ''Access to the network seems to give some kids their own space and make them feel powerful.'' When he first began putting students on-line, Reese recalls, he wasn't convinced they could learn to navigate the networks. Many still need guidance. ''It's not just having the technology,'' says Reese. ''You need a good teacher.'' But the students' excitement when they uncover a new source of information or make a faraway friend sold him on the power of the nets. Communicating via computer, he says, equips kids with skills that will help them thrive in the work force -- and gives them a vision of a future beyond the city streets.