IT'S the next best thing to being there, the old long-distance-telephone ad slogan went. For thousands of students and teachers across the United States and in several other countries, the Jason Project's ``telepresence'' will be the next best thing to doing scientific research in the rain forests of Belize or exploring coral reefs off the coast of that Central American country.
And, in fact, a small number of student and teacher ``argonauts'' will be there, helping the Jason scientists in Belize gather samples and conduct research.
From Feb. 28 to March 12, a team of scientists led by Robert Ballard and their argonaut helpers are broadcasting from Belize to about 400,000 4th-to-10th grade students at 26 large-screen viewing sites in the US, Canada, Bermuda, and the United Kingdom.
At these ``primary interactive network'' (PIN) sites, students will be able to question the researchers, and some kids will be able to guide remotely operated video cameras in the jungle and deep in the ocean.
Millions of other students in the US will see coverage of the Jason expedition through cable television in their classrooms.
The Jason Project is part of a burgeoning movement to use advanced telecommunications technology to enliven education through you-are-there experiences. But in its scope and outreach, Jason is the leader in the telepresence field.
The Belize expedition is the fifth annual Jason undertaking. Earlier Jason Project teams and their distant viewers discovered hydrothermal vents in the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, explored warships from the War of 1812 at the bottom of Lake Ontario, followed Charles Darwin's steps in the Galapagos Islands, and observed migrating gray whales in the Sea of Cortez off Mexico's Baja peninsula.
The expeditions are administered by the Jason Foundation for Education in Waltham, Mass., in partnership with EDS Corporation, the National Geographic Society, the National Science Teachers Association, the US Department of Education, and Bechtel Group Inc.
In addition to sponsoring and broadcasting the annual expeditions, the foundation prepares and distributes school-curriculum materials related to each trip.
The Jason Project was launched by Dr. Ballard, director of the Center for Marine Exploration at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. After Ballard filmed the sunken Titanic in 1985 with an underwater robot named Jason, he received letters from 16,000 students who wanted to join his trips.
``I was surprised that these kids were so excited by the Titanic discovery,'' Ballard says. ``It had the effect on many of them that the moon landings had on their parents. I wanted to build on this burst of enthusiasm for science and technology and try to keep kids in the [science] game during their intellectually formative years.''
Besides capitalizing on students' tastes for high-tech adventure, the Jason Project may influence their attitudes toward science in another way, Ballard says: ``They see that scientists have the right stuff; they aren't just nerds.''
As described by Ballard, the Belize expedition will ``follow a raindrop'' as it falls into the upper canopy of a tropical rain forest, drips to the ground below, soaks down into a subterranean stream, and ultimately flows into the sea.
Guided by Ballard along this route, viewers will meet and talk with ecologist Meg Lowman as she studies plant and animal life along a walkway built high in the canopy; speleologist Tom Miller as he maps limestone caves; and marine biologist Jerry Wellington as he probes coral reefs. Wearing a ``bubble helmet'' that permits him to speak, Dr. Wellington will talk with viewers from 30 feet below the ocean surface.
In a prerecorded segment, archaeologist Richard Leventhal will explore Xunantunich, a Mayan city built around AD 750. The team also includes Jeff Corwin, a young naturalist who will discuss rain-forest wildlife (see accompanying story).
The scientists will make five hour-long broadcasts each day, most of them live, to the PIN sites. Besides talking with the Jason researchers and operating the robotic cameras, students at the sites will be able to question teachers and local scientists. Many PIN sites will also have related activities and displays.
For the argonauts, the expedition will be even more immediate. The 23 students and six teachers, who were selected through an application and interview process, will work with assigned scientists, and each student also has an independent project.
For instance, Tyler Massey, a 9th grader from Tulsa, Okla., will join Wellington at the coral-reef site. In his project, he will deposit calcium-carbonate mud and crushed limestone near flourishing coral to see if the mixture attracts coral-forming organisms.
``If it works, the experiment'' - which he devised with the help of one of his science teachers - ``could help biologists learn how to replenish dying reefs,'' Tyler says.
One of the adult argonauts, Amanda May, teaches ``hands-on'' science to 700 kids at Antietam Elementary School in Woodbridge, Va. She likes science because ``it's the one subject where kids can go home and dazzle their parents.''
Ms. May helped prepare the curriculum materials relating to the excavation at Xunantunich, and she will accompany the students who will work at the ruins.
May says one of the things she appreciates about Jason is the full involvement of females in the projects. Prominent women scientists like Dr. Lowman have been part of every project team, she says, and many student argonauts have been girls. This year five of the six teacher argonauts are women.
While many educators praise the Jason Project and other telepresence activities for getting students revved up about science, no one knows yet if the effects are more than ephemeral.
Even an enthusiastic Jason supporter like Prof. John Jahoda, chairman of the biological sciences department at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass., one of the PIN sites, says with regard to nurturing students' interest in science: ``The real question is, what do we do next? Things like the Jason Project can't be the end of it. The whole education-reform movement must get involved.''
Jason Foundation president Peter Palermo, a retired Eastman Kodak Company senior executive, says improved science education is a key to America's global competitiveness.
He says: ``We're dedicated to making the Jason Foundation a symbol of excellence in science education, teacher training, curriculum development, and applying new technology in the classroom.''