High schools students from the Agriculture and Food Science Academy in St. Paul will soon be able to take University lab courses from the comfort of their classrooms thanks to sub-par service by Qwest Communications.
The University and the academy are establishing video conferencing capabilities that will link the students to University classrooms and laboratories with funding from fines Qwest paid to the state.
The Minnesota Telecommunications Fund gave $16,758 to the school to buy the relatively expensive equipment. The fund accumulates money when Qwest is penalized for not meeting state standards, such as not answering 90 percent of service calls in 20 seconds.
Faculty at the University and the academy say the former fine money will be turned into positive pedagogical opportunities that will further students’ education.
“It broadens horizons exponentially,” said Andrew Whyte, the academy’s technology coordinator.
Students will be able to interview researchers in the field, whether it’s at a farm in Minnesota or an experiment in Beijing, Whyte said.
Ann Hill Duin, associate dean of the University’s Agriculture, Food, and Environment Science College, is determining which courses will be offered interactively and said the project will allow students to take more college-level classes at a lower cost and with less time sacrificed.
“If you have video conferencing you don’t have to be busing people everywhere,” she said. “By working together, we can help educate these students.”
The fund was established in 1996 as part of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s settlement with Qwest’s predecessor, USWest Communications, for not providing competitive market standards. The settlement introduced regulations for service quality that the telecommunications company must adhere to or else be fined.
The penalties are paid directly to affected customers when possible. When no one customer or set of customers can be identified as the affected party, the money goes into the telecommunications fund.
The academy was one of 26 organizations, limited to libraries, schools and nonprofit health groups, that received part of the $1.7 million in grants for telecommunication projects distributed by the Minnesota Department of Commerce.
From 1998 to 2001 the fund accumulated $1.8 million of Qwest’s money. One hundred thousand dollars remain in the fund.
The two-year-old academy will use the money to purchase five computers and two systems that will include 32-inch televisions, video cameras and microphones that will allow its 160 students to see, hear and respond to University professors.
The professors will be able to see and assist the students as they work in the academy’s lab, said academy principle Becky Meyer. It’s a process, she says, that will ease students’ transition to college.
“A higher percentage of students will be involved in University classes,” she said. “And these students will be more familiar and comfortable with the ‘U’ of ‘M.’ “
Whyte, whose wife found out about the grant on the Internet, said he was surprised to find out the source of the grant but was glad to know the money was going to good use.
“I thought it was kind of curious,” he said. “I think it’s a very good use for the money.”
Nathan Halverson covers business and welcomes comments at [email protected]