UMASSK12: CONNECTING TEACHERS TO THE WORLD

Helen and Mort Sternheim

Department of Physics

University of Massachusetts Amherst

We began the UMassK12 project in May 1986 with a PC based electronic bulletin board (BBS) called the Physics Forum. The project is now an Internet service for teachers and students and is in its fifteenth year of continuous operation. It is the oldest such service in Massachusetts, and one of the oldest in the nation.

The original Physics Forum BBS was designed to meet the needs of physics teachers. Typically there are only one or two physics teachers in a high school, and many have minimal formal training in physics. The idea was to link them to each other and to the resources of the University. With the help of a UMass grant, and using our experience in running bulletin boards for a computer users group, we set up a system that would allow users to share ideas and download teaching materials.

Being a bit naïve, we were surprised when nobody showed any interest. Teachers didn’t have modems, or telephones in school, or computers. Furthermore, they didn’t see why they would want to get online. We did presentations at MassCUE and other meetings, offered training sessions, and wrote articles.  At the urging of Mary Alice Wilson, the Five Colleges/Public School Partnership Coordinator, we broadened our vision to include all teachers. Eventually the idea caught on and people began to use the service. MassCUE helped with a grant, and MCET funded 800 lines for two years.

We also got involved in helping teachers improve their science teaching with a series of National Science Foundation funded projects. In 1989, SpaceMet helped middle school teachers to make science more engaging using space science and exploration, and, of course, telecommunications. It also funded the expansion of the bulletin boards to the SpaceMet system, four computers providing local access in the Pioneer Valley. These computers all shared echomail, which is similar to Internet newsgroups, with each other and with a global network of 30,000 “FidoNet” bulletin boards via phone lines. The State College network also provided connections statewide. Angus “Terry” Dun, a computer technology teacher at Franklin County Tech, joined us as Technical Director. 5C5E followed in 1992, showing teachers how to do environmental research with their students.

By 1992 the Internet had reached the point that everyone knew about it and was clamoring to get online, but access was not available in much of the state. This was before the web, and a menu-based system called gopher was fairly new. Text still ruled; there were no graphics, and most teachers had access only to relatively limited PC’s. A service called Cleveland FreeNet had developed an easy to use set of menus, and we decided put a similar system online based on the FreePort software.

The University donated a DEC workstation, and hired programmer Matt Kimmel, who had served as a volunteer in the early bulletin board years while in his mid teens. The software was not designed for the version of Unix on our computer, but Matt eventually got it run to reliably.

The original UMassK12 text based system went online in May 1993. We offered free Internet accounts to all Massachusetts teachers and their students. Again we were a bit naïve, but we were surprised in a different way: we were inundated by a flood of eager users. Before long we had three students setting up accounts. Close to 10,000 accounts were issued overall. We held almost weekly training workshops on campus, and distributed countless users manuals. Ultimately the system had as many as 100 simultaneous users, and response slowed to a crawl. We limited the number of new accounts per school in an attempt to slow the growth.

Another problem we had to face was funding. The NSF grants were ending, and UMassK12 was too much for volunteers to manage. Reluctantly, we began to charge for accounts. This gave us the resources to maintain and expand our services to meet whatever the demand might be. Gradually, as other commercial and education Internet options appeared, our user base diminished. However, despite the free or almost free accounts now available to public school teachers, we do maintain a core of users who appreciate the kind of service we offer.

Soon after the text-based UMassK12 went online, the World Wide Web made its appearance. Our users began to clamor for a system that would support web browsers as well as graphical mail and news clients. We couldn’t provide the requisite PPP or Slip connections, but three Amherst Regional High School students (Chris Cardé, James Hines, and Joe Kislo) offered to set up a Linux based Pentium using a program called Slirp that accomplished the same purpose. By late 1995 we could offer users a choice of the new UMassK12s or the older system, which did not require up to date user hardware. Adam Kramer, then a home-schooled high school student in Greenfield, joined us as our Mac user support expert.

As Y2K approached, we learned that our DEC workstation’s operating system and our FreePort software were both noncompliant. Once again we turned to talented high school programmers: Dan Gullage and Amos Weatherbee at Franklin County Tech. They reverse engineered the software, producing a similar looking menu based system with totally new innards. Late in 1999, users were transferred to the new system, and we waited with curiosity to learn what would happen to the old one at midnight on December 31. One more surprise: nothing happened. It was running just fine when we pulled the plug in March.

At this time, our Internet servers can be reached via modem pools in Amherst, Franklin County, and Holyoke. Limited access is also available via Westfield State, Mount Holyoke College, and UMass Boston. We offer low cost accounts to anyone involve in K12 education. We operate a website open to everyone with many pointers to educational resources, http://k12s.phast.umass.edu. Visit us sometime!

A few personal notes: Mort and Helen met in a physics class at the City College of New York. She got a degree in electrical engineering and went on to break the gender barrier at Curtis Wright Electronics and at Southern New England Telephone; she continues to serve as UMassK12 User Service Director. Mort got additional degrees in physics from New York University and Columbia, coming to UMass after postdocs at Brookhaven National Lab and Yale. He accepted early retirement in 1997 from his position as a physics professor, but continues on a post-retirement appointment to direct a 21-college NSF funded program called STEMTEC. It is designed to produce more and better-prepared math and science teachers. Terry Dun continues at the Director of Technical Services and is also now the Technology Coordinator at Franklin County Tech. Mary Alice Wilson has retired and is focusing on grandchildren and bird watching. All our bright young programmers are now in college studying computer science or are working as computer professionals.