ePals: Students Collaborating on Weather, Climate Change and More

What is it like to go to school in the dark, see the sun come up after 10 a.m., watch it go down before 2 p.m., and then go home in the dark? Do elementary students go outside for recess in Arctic areas? If so, what do they wear, and what activities do they do? How does that compare with what your students do outside during the school day?

Questions like these are fascinating to children, and the answers won’t be found in a textbook. Students need to communicate with other children to find the answers.

Teachers can bring so much richness into their classrooms by collaborating with a distant class, but the challenge has been to find someone else to connect with. That is easier than ever before, partly because of the Internet.

One site that has matched up classroom teachers for more than a dozen years is ePals. It’s the largest database of K-12 teachers, in 200 countries and territories, with more than 600,000 classrooms. And best of all, it’s free for schools and students to use.


USING EPALS

Go to www.epals.com and “join” the community. You will need to write a profile – focused on your students, classroom and school – to be able to contact other people in the global community. A real person will read your profile and suggest how you can improve it. (Profiles are screened to see whether such a school exists and whether the teacher actually works there.) Use your school district email account when you sign up so it’s easier to show that you are a teacher.

You can also choose to get free SchoolMail for yourself and for your students. This award-winning email system provides features teachers asked for, and has received the highest standard of Internet privacy and safety. ePals has TRUSTe certification. Look for the logo on sites that work hard to protect students… not all education sites have it!

Once you have gotten a SchoolMail account (for your classroom or school) you can easily upload student names and get names and passwords created. This allows students to have a pen pal in another part of the world. If the pen pals are in northern Norway, Sweden, or Finland, you can use the instant language translation feature to allow your students to understand when students write in another language. Or the students in the other countries might be quite interested in trying out the English they are learning in school with your students.

To help your students learn more about Arctic life, weather, animals, and resources, see whether you can find other students who live in Arctic areas to connect with. You could ask a set of questions that go beyond what can be found in a textbook. You might ask them to share pictures of their school, their homes and what they do after school for fun. What kind of pets do they have? What chores do students do before or after school?

ePals also offers some projects that might be a great way to organize your learning activities. These projects provide great guidance to teachers in collaborating and specifying what is to happen in five or six email exchanges. Two of particular interest in science would be Weather and Global Warming. Students who live in Arctic areas could describe observed changes in their environment that are happening because of global warming and possibly even share pictures. In addition, a focus area on Biodiversity this fall offers great resources to extend student learning as well as encourage additional discussion on this important topic.

Once your students have gotten used to the idea of learning from and collaborating with distant students, they will want to continue the real-world interaction. You can use many real-time data projects with your students, either joining an existing project or creating your own.  Six excellent projects appropriate for elementary students were discussed in Connecting Classrooms, Sharing Real Data from Issue 2 (April 2008) of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears.


RESOURCES

ePals
The home page for a free global community of connected classrooms in 200 countries. ePals provides a secure environment for student communication with electronic pen pals using monitored email and blogs, as well as collaborative projects, with translation into 35 languages.

Weather Classroom Project
In this unit, students become meteorologists as they explore the conditions that make up weather. Through an ongoing email exchange, students will share weather-related information about their own location while learning about the weather in their pen pals’ location.

Global Warming Classroom Project
In this project, students learn about the effects of global warming and ways to reduce its effects on our planet. Through email exchanges, students collaborate on ways kids around the globe can make a difference.


This article was written by Rita Oates. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Rita at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright October 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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