Habitat for Learning

With videoconferencing, educators at a city zoo can teach about animals directly from their habitats.

Tad Schoffner has some new on-the-job partners that he knows will upstage him. Schoffner can blame his employer, which deployed the mobile and wireless technology that now puts him side by side with some real animals.

Schoffner, assistant animal care manager at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, uses the zoo's new mobile and wireless infrastructure to teach students about animals within their habitats via videoconference link.

"You can't always guarantee [the animals] are going to do what you want, but when it works, it works great," says Schoffner. "Even if the timing isn't just right, it's still a lot better than standing in a studio."

Computerworld named the zoo's project as the winner in the Media, Arts & Entertainment category in its annual Honors Program.

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has broadcast educational programs to students through its distance learning program since 1998, using standard videoconferencing equipment housed in its Adventure Hall studio. The classroom had interesting teaching tools -- a big world map, animal skulls, a model of a Komodo dragon -- but it wasn't designed to accommodate visits from the zoo's larger residents. Presenters teaching about primates, for instance, had to rely on video, photos and PowerPoint presentations to relay their lessons. The educational staff wanted to create a more interactive experience that more closely resembled a trip to the zoo. To do that, they implemented an enterprisewide wireless infrastructure and made the videoconferencing equipment mobile.

"I taught in a room with four walls. The kids were going from one classroom into another. I wanted them to see more," says Cathy Ryan, an education specialist in the zoo's conservation education division. "Now we have a lot more teachable moments. We can say, 'Take a look at that joey -- it's pushing its head out of the pouch,' and we can zoom in on that for the kids to see."

The Cost Hurdle

From the start, zoo leaders wanted to broadcast from the exhibits, says conservation education curator Vicki Searles, "but the technology wasn't readily available for the price we could afford."

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Cathy Ryan, education specialist in the zoo's conservation education division

Fast-forward to 2005. Zoo officials, seeing other Cleveland-area institutions and organizations adopt wireless tools, recognized their own chance to go wireless. To help zero in on a plan, zoo officials hired Total Systems Integration Inc. (TSI), a Galion, Ohio-based company that had helped the zoo set up its videoconferencing equipment.

TSI suggested a wireless mobile videoconferencing cart. "There aren't too many [organizations that] do videoconferencing over a wireless network, so this is pretty unique," says Bob Lynch, TSI's sales and marketing director.

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