Bringing springtime to America's schools... via videoconference

The National Baseball Hall of Fame inaugurates a unique distance learning program

You're sitting in the ballpark, right behind home plate. You feel the hot sunshine on your face. The thought of a hotdog makes your mouth water. Someone is yelling "peanuts" in your ear. The bat cracks, the crowd roars. Everyone's on their feet cheering as the batter races for first base!

"Sit down, Donald!" yells your teacher and you come crashing back to reality. No sunshine, no hotdog, no baseball. Just that stuffy old classroom on a beautiful spring day just made for a ball game. Ouch.

Yes, it's spring, and baseball has returned to America. From the littlest T-baller to the major leaguer, the crack of a bat and the cheer of a crowd can be heard all over the country. What you may not realize is that your teacher wants to be at that game as much as you do, and now there's hope for both of you. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, is inaugurating a new distance learning center that brings baseball alive and into classrooms all over the world.

Baseball and the curriculum

What does baseball have to do with education? Everything, according to Hall of Fame Director of Education and Museum Programs Jeff Arnett.

"We can take anything taught in the classroom today and find relevance in baseball," says Arnett. The museum offers ten distance learning programs covering everything from math to history to geography. "Before you could say Jackie Robinson" is a program on America's multi-cultural diversity and the Civil Rights Movement in 1947. "The Price is Right" is an economics unit comparing concession prices and program costs throughout baseball in the twentieth century. Character education is touched upon in a program about Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig.

All of these programs can be interactive, now that the museum has redesigned and refitted its 56-seat Bullpen Theater. Until now, distance learning programming has been available on a limited basis from a smaller room at the museum, but the demand and the sophistication of the programs called for a larger, more technologically advanced space. The Bullpen offered the best option.

The a/v bullpen

Working in conjunction with Project VIEW, a federally funded program run by the Schenectady, NY, school district, and Audio-Visual Sales and Service, a dealer out of Albany, the Hall of Fame has created a virtual window to the world.

"We told them we wanted the best series of equipment on the cutting edge," says Arnett. "We want to be able to sustain the program for the next three to five years, at least."

The tiered theater is equipped with two Sharp XG-C50X LCD projectors. One shows the far end image on a rear projection screen at the front of the room. A second projector, mounted on the ceiling, projects the same image to a screen on the rear wall, allowing the presenter to see remote students without having to turn around.

"Our first choice for the presenter's view was LCD projection because of where it had to be placed," says Glenn Lupien of A/V Sales & Service. "And also the ability to maintain that component long term. We considered using a plasma display, but the current generation has a relatively limited operating life, and once it's gone, it's gone. We try to make sure our customers aren't going to buy something that will become antiquated or eventually need replacement."

Lupien said the Sharp projector's design and brightness level clearly won the day. "Once we put the first C50 in, they just loved its performance. They already had a fairly new competing projector in place in the projection room, but once they saw the C50, they had no question whatsoever about replacing that right off the top."

Mounted next to the screen in the back is a Parkervision robotic camera, which follows the presenter as he or she moves around the room. A smaller pan/tilt camera in the front captures the local audience image and sends it to the remote location via a Tandberg 6000 codec. A DVD player in the presenter's lectern and a document camera for close up shots of museum exhibits can make the program more visually exciting halfway across the country.

"The document camera allows us to get almost a microscopic look at museum artifacts," said Arnett. A close-up of Shoeless Joe's baseball glove, or how the stitching and leather of baseballs have changed since the 19th century are all part of America's history and the evolution of its industries.

A timely program

The Museum's educational offerings are created in conjunction with Project VIEW, a federally funded program that started as the seed of an idea from Schenectady School Superintendent Dr. John Falco and his colleagues. Dr. Falco wanted to involve local museums in the learning process but the district's first attempt at grant money was soundly rejected. A second attempt didn't fare any better, but Falco says the third time was a charm.

"We began talking to museums on a national scope, like the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian," says Falco. "We had 32 museums signed up and a considerably refined proposal. Every congressman in the state endorsed our grant and we got the largest grant from the Department of Education - $10 million."

It was a presentation Dr. Falco made at a conference in upstate New York that brought the Baseball Hall of Fame into the fold. Hall of Fame representatives just happened to be in the audience that day, and they approached Dr. Falco following his speech, enthusiastic about becoming a part of the program.

"We were just starting out and I thought we should explore all avenues," said Falco. "The Baseball Hall of Fame is a very special place. They have original source material and experts in those areas."

Project VIEW helped the Museum design its curricula and take the "virtual field trips" to a deeper level. The Project VIEW training labs, all equipped with Sharp technology, offer educators a hands-on learning environment when they are new to distance learning. Project VIEW also acts as a technology adapter between sites.

"If schools have older ISDN lines, Project VIEW provides bridging and gateway technology to make the videoconference happen," says Sal DeAngelo, Technical Services Coordinator for the organization. "Technology should be a tool, not an obstacle."

Three years into a five-year grant, Project VIEW coordinates educational videoconference programs from museums, zoos, businesses, and schools all over the country.

"We're enjoying some good timing right now," said DeAngelo. "With the onset of concerns over travel and school groups, this has become a wonderful venue for education. Kids seamlessly embrace this technology."

Although the Hall has done no formal marketing or promotion for the program, Arnett says they have been doing two to three distance learning sessions each week and expect to be doing 7-10 a week within two years. "People are telling us we're underestimating the impact," says Arnett. When Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry visited Alaska recently, a local school set up a distance learning class with Cooperstown. A New Zealand school has been inquiring about the programs, and Arnett says they're trying to work out the time differences to make it happen.

Museum visitors can join in

"We're really excited about the quality of equipment and what it will allow us to do," says Arnett. "This gives us the capability of making videoconferencing part of our public programming. Visitors and museum guests can sit in or even take part in a videoconference." The Bullpen Theater now gives the museum plenty of flexibility and the possibility of using multiple presenters during a program. Arnett says museum artifacts will soon decorate the theater walls so there will be no doubt at remote sites that they are viewing a program from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"Most museums would be envious of what we're doing, but we're not satisfied. We want more of a virtual experience." Arnett says the next phase is to take a camera out into the museum exhibits and galleries and be able to send a live signal back to the distance learning program. Whether it's an art class featuring baseball paintings by Norman Rockwell or a vintage baseball broadcast from the 1930's that students will create themselves, a remote camera would open up the entire museum to their imaginations.

"People will walk away with a clear impression that this is an educational institution," says Arnett. So when baseball fever strikes and a trip to the ballpark is out of the question, a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown just might be a phone call away. The peanuts and Cracker Jacks are up to you.

To learn more

Click here for details on Project VIEW and the Baseball Hall.

Click here for the Baseball Hall of Fame website.