Without leaving Texas, a Vietnam veteran who lives near Dallas stood in front of a fifth-grade classroom in Maumee while pupils took turns asking him about military life.
How did you feel about antiwar protests? Did you change your views during the span of the war? How did you feel when the war ended?
Ronald E. Nicholas, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, answered each question just fine, but a thunderstorm in Texas caused some glitches for the folks in Ohio.
On this rainy morning, state-of-the-art technology - namely, a videoconference - linked pupils in Maumee with pupils in a Dallas suburb. Mr. Nicholas and veteran Rick Ruston, who also volunteered to participate in the project, were in both classrooms at the same time, in person in Texas and in Ohio.
The conversation with pupils from both states and the veterans was made possible through a TV set, a mobile videoconference lab, and Internet capabilities.
Both veterans and the pupils in the Texas classroom were able to see the Maumee pupils during the videoconference, and the Maumee pupils could see them.
Because of technical difficulty, however, a few questions and answers had to be repeated, and the image on the screen froze momentarily when Mr. Ruston, who was wearing his dress whites, raised his arm to salute. Otherwise, everything went well.
“Anytime you are dealing with technology, you are at its mercy. You just never know,” said Amanda Kenyon, program manager for MINDS Institute, an educational cooperative for the “K-12 community.”
“I think it was really cool,” Kaylana Addington said after the TV set went dark in Fort Miami Elementary School in Maumee after the conference ended. “You can see and talk to people in Texas while you're here in Ohio. They were here in our classroom, but they were halfway across the country,” the fifth-grade pupil said.
It was an exciting, educational, memorable event on many levels, pupils and staff agreed.
Not only was it a pilot videoconference program, but the event gave pupils the chance to participate in a special oral-history project. The videotape of their interviews with the veterans will be forwarded to Washington by MINDS Institute, which has become a partner with the oral-history project through American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress to help capture the stories and experiences of American veterans.
In addition, the videotape will be available soon on the Maumee city history web site as part of a heroes project organized by Maureen Judy, fifth-grade teacher at Fort Miami, and Staci Leach, a teacher at Maumee High School. Some pupils in Mrs. Leach's class participated in the videoconference last week to give a multigenerational perspective to the oral-history project.
When Matt Kovacs, a sophomore, asked the veterans about their views on the war in Iraq, Mr. Nicholas said that he was impressed by the technological advances made by the military in the last 30 years.
Mr. Ruston replied that he has strong feelings about the recent war. He said that the military should be allowed to do its job, and the media should be moved out of there.
Pupils in Texas and Ohio asked questions from a prepared list of questions available online at a variety of Web sites, including the MINDS Web pages.
Questions range from those under the category of “jogging the memory” - name, age, where born and raised, educational background, current address - to “life during wartime” - how did you feel about the war? In what ways did the war change your activities or habits?
“I was very impressed that the kids that age had that training available to them,” said Mr. Ruston who was in the Navy for 30 years. He was impressed with the questions the children asked and commented that he tried to make sure that he gave answers that the pupils could understand.
Standing by in the Maumee classroom to lend technical support was Tobias Balser with Northwest Ohio Computer Association.
He provided the mobile videoconference lab that was used in Mrs. Judy's classroom.
MINDS Institute has a close working relationship with the computer association, said Mrs. Kenyon, who contacted the computer association to see whether any teachers in the area would be interested in linking up with the Texas class for a long-distance project. MINDS Institute has clients in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Texas. It is based in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Mrs. Judy, who leaped at the opportunity, had only about two weeks to coordinate the videoconference, and her first thought was that she needed a bus.
“We don't have the technology here. I figured we needed a bus to get us to Gateway Middle School. They have the equipment there,” she said, but Mr. Balser offered the portable lab.
“This is the very first pilot videoconference in NWOCA,” Mrs. Kenyon said. “This was our first oral-history history” in the Toledo area
Pupils rehearsed their questions and conducted a practice session the day before the videoconference.
In between, Mrs. Judy scrambled to make final preparations, including tracking down carpet squares for the pupils.
The carpet was more comfortable than the floor - and it provided some insulation to cut down on noise.
Mr. Nicholas, who retired from the Army in 1970, praised the professionalism of the students and said he was familiar with videoconferencing in the corporate world, but he didn't know that the technology is being used by middle-school pupils.
“The pupils asked good questions,” said Mr. Nicholas, who received two Purple Hearts. He was wounded twice in 1969; the second time the injuries were so severe that he was hospitalized for two years.
Some pupils said they were glad that the veterans wore their uniforms during the interviews. Mr. Nicholas admitted that he can't fit into his old uniform.
Veterans History Project, initiated by Congress and signed into law by former President Clinton in 2000, is run by the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center.