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Projecting the Future

Same dead frog. Less mess. Document cameras can do a lot more than you'd think. They allow a class of students to see a live dissection of a frog while keeping their hands clean.

If science teachers at 10 newly created Bronx, N.Y., high schools want to demonstrate the inner workings of amphibians this spring, they won't be held back because their schools don't have fully furnished science labs. With the delivery of $32,000 rolling science carts, the teachers will have the highest-tech data capturing, graphing and display tools available to high-school science students.

The carts, created by A+ Technology Solutions, and funded by the Bronx Borough President's office, will allow teachers to dissect a single frog on top of a document camera, and project the entire anatomy onto a wall, TV or screen in full color. A single drop of blood could be examined under a microscope, with that image also projected for all to see. A chemistry teacher would have at her disposal probes for temperature, oxygen and velocity among others, to capture data as it is produced. Students, using handheld IPAC computers that are part of the carts, can graph the data, transfer it back to a PC on the science cart, and compare their graphs to those produced by classmates.

"A real science lab costs a couple of hundred thousand dollars to put together," says Ira Gelernter, an information technology consultant to the Bronx High School District. "This year we opened up 10 new schools in the Bronx, most of them located within large school buildings. These schools don't necessarily get science labs of their own, so while this won't replace everything that can be done in a true science lab, it's the next best thing."

The central component of the rolling science carts is a Lumens document camera, a device that captures all of the images, from the frog parts to the cells under the microscope, to a paper with text on it, and allows them to be displayed on a monitor, computer screen or wall. Document cameras, and the many input and output devices that attach to them, are slowly finding a home in K-12 classrooms across the country. As features and functionality increase, and price and size decrease, these devices are migrating from merely replacing overhead projectors to connecting the four-walled classrooms to the outside world.

Impressive Evolution

Document cameras, also called Visual Presenters by one of the industry's leading manufacturers, ELMO Mfg. Corp., were invented in the late 1970s when televisions first began to be used in the classroom. "A lot of people were using overhead projectors. One day somebody got the bright idea of mounting a camera and pointing it down onto a document and portraying that on a television," says Carmen Aiken, a sales representative for Tampa, Fla.-based Audio Visual Innovations, which supplies school districts and businesses around the country with audio and visual services.

Document cameras have evolved impressively since those days; like most technologies, each year brings new models with more features and functions. Today, both analog and digital document cameras are sold. Analog is cheaper, but not suited for displaying large amounts of fine-print text. Zoom capabilities continue to advance, with some machines magnifying as much as 80x, acting as mini-microscopes.

Other new features include additional input and output ports and compatibility with devices such as microscopes, science probes and computers. These devices can be used to input images or data to be displayed. Output destinations can include VCRs, computers, projectors and the Internet, which can bring the object or data on display to any other similarly equipped classroom, or to a computer halfway around the world.

Many document cameras are also equipped with base lamps so that traditional transparencies can be used. Another major improvement in document cameras in recent years is the ability to digitally capture an image, such as a photograph placed on the bed of the device, and save it to a computer or disk. Using the example of dissecting a frog, a teacher could essentially take

a picture of each stage of the process, save the pictures, and then replay them as a presentation for the next class, print them out, or e-mail them.

Document cameras have other classroom applications outside of science. Because they allow a teacher to project the image of anything placed on the screen, from a newspaper to a painting, they can be used to display items that may be too fragile, dangerous or expensive to pass around the room.

"In a shop class, if the teacher asks students to do a solder, and one of the students does a really good job, then the teacher can put that actual piece of metal on the document camera and point out the aspects that were well done," says Aaron Marinari, product manager for Epson's AV Group.

At Churchwell Elementary School in Lakeland, Fla., media specialist Jennifer Miller uses a document camera in the library to teach students dictionary skills. But each afternoon the school's ELMO document camera is put to a more ingenious use. The document camera is located in the main office and connected to a school-wide cable TV network. At dismissal time, classroom teachers tune their in-class TV to the prescribed station, and as each color-coded bus route is called, the corresponding picture of the bus is placed on the document camera. In each classroom, students can look at the screen to see if their bus has been called.

Money Matters

This implementation underscores the belief of ELMO's national sales manager Howard Winch, who says, "applications [for document cameras] aren't entirely in the classroom. Really the only limit is the imagination of the person who has it."

Imagination, and budget, he should say. While overhead projectors can cost as little as $100, the cheapest document camera intended for classroom use is close to $1,400. Prices can go as high as $7,000, and often additional equipment like a projector, a monitor, a computer or other devices are needed to fully use the capabilities of the document camera.

"In a typical environment, the cost is still too high to put one in each classroom," says David Antar, president of Massapequa, Long Island-based A+ Technologies.

Though they are becoming commonplace in college classrooms, Winch estimates that only 15 percent to 20 percent of K-12 classes have document cameras available to them, and only a "miniscule" number of those have presentation systems that are permanently installed. The rest typically use portable document cameras and projectors, often-simpler versions of the rolling science carts at the Bronx high schools.

Given that even a low-end document camera costs 10 times more than an overhead projector, it's not surprising that ELMO sold more than 30,000 overhead projectors last year and only about 17,000 document cameras.

So if your district isn't one that can afford to stay on the cutting edge of technology, why splurge?

The future, Winch says. Distance learning is expected to be the "killer application" for document cameras in education; when combined with other video conferencing devices, document cameras will allow a science experiment or lesson being taught in Kansas to be presented vividly and in real-time in Kalamazoo.

Technology purchasing decisions need to be made with the future in mind, Winch says, with administrators thinking, "if we eventually get funding and put in a distance learning system, we can electronically communicate with the whole world."

"Overheads only allow you to communicate with your classroom," he says.

Rebecca Sausner,, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.