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School-university team makes baseball an exercise in learning

Craig Chamberlain, Education Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Baseball is pitching, hitting, running the bases.

It’s also math, science, history, language arts … and the Internet.

At least that’s the way some teachers see it in Danville, Ill., where a school-university partnership to promote technology use by student teachers has produced a learning tool based around the national pastime.

The teachers on the team that developed the “Baseball WebQuest” say it has excited and motivated many of their students, including many who had no previous interest in the game, or in certain subjects.

“They almost forget that they’re learning,” said Mary Ellen Bunton, an eighth-grade history teacher at Danville’s South View Middle School. Brenda Key, a computer teacher at South View, thinks it has “leveled the playing field” for some students who have struggled in some subject areas.

Carolyn Grant, district technology coordinator, is using the tool to promote technology training among more of the school system’s veteran teachers. Sixteen teachers were trained last summer, from every building in the district, and then were asked to train others.

Their efforts grew out of a partnership with the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, using grant funds from the U.S. Department of Education, under its “Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to use Technology” (PT3) grant program. The college’s program, funded with $3.2 million in federal and university funds over three years, is called TALENT (for Technology Across Learning Environments for New Teachers).

The WebQuest model is not a new one, but was developed about eight years ago at San Diego State University. A WebQuest is defined, according to Bunton, as “a directed search on the Internet to create a project using higher-order thinking.”

Scott Wennerdahl, in the college’s Office of Educational Technology, made the Danville teachers aware of the model, after hearing Bunton say that she was looking for teaching materials that used baseball as a means to explore history. A school-university team then was soon at work to develop the idea. They then used it in classes in the spring and presented it last summer at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Seattle.

Baseball was a natural starting point for the project since the South View school is near Danville Stadium, built in 1946 and the location for game shots in the filming of “The Babe,” a movie about Babe Ruth. Bunton’s husband also happens to be a baseball coach.

Whereas most WebQuests focus on a single subject area, the Baseball WebQuest is designed for use with four. Each subject is assigned to a pitch: fast ball (science), curve (history), slider (language arts), and change-up (math).

Students learn about averages and graphs by working with baseball statistics. They learn about arm muscles and physics by studying the art of pitching. They’re asked to imagine and write about what times were like during different baseball eras, such as during the time of the Negro League or the women’s league started during World War II.

Students can pick and choose assignments based on their interests, and on the level of difficulty (First Base, 10 points; Second Base, 20 points, etc.). The teacher determines the number of points required to complete the exercise.

The Baseball WebQuest was a relatively modest project, unlike developing a curriculum or piece of software. It was designed for use over a few weeks with any given class.

For the school and the university, however, it was one demonstration of the value of this kind of school-university collaboration. “You don’t get a lot of opportunities to create new things as a teacher,” Bunton said. “Teachers have all kinds of ideas,” she said, but they rarely have the time and means to start and finish them.

“The university helped us by providing the people resources and training and support to get it started,” Grant said, “but now it’s something that we can carry on ourselves in the school district.”