IRL: Distance Learning Adds Racing to the Curriculum

IRL PHOENIX TEST SPEEDS STUDENT LEARNING VIA TELEVISION INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 26, 1998 - When the kids come home from school and say they're learning math, chemistry, physiology, history and art through the auto racing industry,...

IRL PHOENIX TEST SPEEDS STUDENT LEARNING VIA TELEVISION INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 26, 1998 - When the kids come home from school and say they're learning math, chemistry, physiology, history and art through the auto racing industry, don't smirk in disbelief.

Six Speedway High School students (Kelli Kaiser, Jennifer Goodman, Heather Love, Jesse Anderson, Jared Beeler and John DoBoer) and hundreds more like them have been doing just that during the school year, via interactive educational television.

As an outgrowth of an interactive educational TV program called Distance Learning, they will be at the Pep Boys Indy Racing League test session at Phoenix International Raceway Thursday, Feb. 26, at 1 p.m. (EST) to conduct a live satellite telecast to Indiana schools. In addition, the students will gather interviews and film for a documentary they will produce when they return.

Prior to this assignment, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum and Speedway High School joined forces this year to bring interactive educational television to schools around Indiana in a distance learning program called "Indy, A Quest for Speed."

It was a good match. The museum has played host to more than a million school kids since the mid-70s and was looking for ways to expand its educational mission. Speedway High teachers wanted to motivate students to learn the standard subjects in a manner that would directly involve than rather than parroting textbook facts or standing in front of a chalkboard crammed with unintelligible equations.

Students write and produce segments of the 50-minute programs demonstrating the use of math and science principles in motor racing. They also serve as on-air commentators and work to produce and edit video.

"It's hard to imagine a learning initiative that cannot be woven into a Speedway racing scenario," says Ellen Bireley, museum manager, "One of the big concerns in education today is keeping the attention of kids. The attention span in a MTV world is minuscule. Boredom is a concern. Making textbook information more relevant is a concern. If we can make academic concepts come alive in the context of something as intensive and exciting as auto racing, the kids win on both counts."

Take math, for example, "If you want to go racing, you need money." Bireley said. "Which means you must have sponsors. Maybe students do an exercise involving the economic side of racing. How much money is needed? How many people on a crew and how much should they be paid? There are a few other costs such as a car and an engine. So let's put math skills to work building a racing budget."

In the last year, distance learning events have involved student teams talking back and forth to expert panelists at the museum during two-way TV broadcasts. Subjects have been wide-ranging-from the chemistry of race tires to career opportunities in racing to body stress, comparing the forces at work if you're tackled on a football field versus kissing the wall during an auto race.

In Phoenix, the focus will be on learning the various aspects of satellite communications for the telecast, such as camera work, audio engineering, script writing, setting up and striking the set. The show will cover the economics of owning and managing a race team, technology in racing and variations in car setup for different racing venues with help from the experts of the Hemelgarn Racing racing team, owned by Ron Hemelgarn.

Vicki Ferrell, Speedway High School's facilitator for the distance learning program, has guided the six students in gathering data and facts prior to the Phoenix trip. "The program there will run about 50 minutes, and the schools coming in can use the information in any way they want," she said. "Perhaps a school has an economics class that could use auto racing as a basis for looking at the cost of managing a team: figuring the cost of housing and feeding team members at a test site and checking on insurance needs. Or an auto mechanics class may want to know how a race is set up, or the cost of rebuilding after a racing accident."

But there has been plenty of work to do before going to the track. Kelli, Jennifer and Heather did the marketing, including designing, writing and faxing flyers to more than 200 participating Indiana schools. The students and faculty also put together learning packets giving a program outline and racing terminology to be used by the schools.

Meanwhile John, who will introduce the race team participants at the Phoenix broadcast, has spent his time researching satellite communication technology. When interviewed for this article, he interrupted his viewing of the IRL web page where he was taking notes on the configuration of the Phoenix race track.

"This is preparation not only for the broadcast, but to film and interview the satellite team for our own documentary, said John, the senior class valedictorian. Our cameraman, Jared, will be filming the filmers for this project and I'll do much of the interviewing. After we return, the writing, editing, and computer programs will be done by our advanced communications class. We hope to distribute the completed product through another distance learning event."

John, who describes himself as someone who is enthralled with math, is enthusiastic about "Indy, A Quest for Learning," and the unlimited opportunities for students to learn a subject through real-life applications.

However, the challenge may be in convincing parents that math and chemistry homework is the motivation for their kids to head out to the track, ready to go racin'.

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