“Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling?” by Feld

  • ©Steve Feld

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    Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling?

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    My experience as a ThinkQuest coach has been extraordinary. I am a teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Bronx, New York. In December 1996, I was asked by Gino Silvestri, the principal of the school, to attend a classroom session by Dr. Sheila Gersh at City College to learn about the ThinkQuest Project.ThinkQuest is an annual international contest that brings together distant schools to partner on Internet projects. At the time, I had little Internet experience, but a great desire to get my students involved in the international collaborative project. Because our computer classroom had rudimentary equipment, I knew we would face compelling challenges to succeed in this process.
    Seven years earlier, my students competed in the Learning Technologies Fair in Albany, New York.They won the competition with Da Vinci’s Visions, a student-created computer research project, which included a video component and a 24-screen computer game. At the fair, we met Dr. Lillian Schwartz, who was in the audience. She introduced herself and explained that she had researched Leonardo da Vinci and had made some remarkable discoveries. It is her theory that da Vinci painted himself as Mona Lisa. Although Dr. Schwartz’s book, The Computer Artist’s Handbook, was out of print, my students selected the theme Why Is the Mona Lisa Smiling? as their project for the ThinkQuest contest to revitalize her theory.
    We needed to collaborate with another school, and first we used the ThinkQuest Team Finder (where participants can post a message on the ThinkQuest server) to seek partners for our project. Although we located a Canadian student to help us with team formation, she dropped out of the project just as the deadline approached. We ultimately found partners from Borlange, Sweden, using a Canadian listserve called INCLASS. We knew we had to work quickly because the deadline was only three months away.
    The key component was to make the Web site accessible to all. Through their research, my students discovered that da Vinci wrote music. They found the music and digitized the score to make it Internet compatible. We also wanted to include an online interactive quiz, but we wanted it to be viewable with any browser. That meant that we needed to learn how to incorporate Java Applets and CGI scripts into our project. We secured permission to use copyrighted images in our project. My students coded the project using text processors, while our Swedish collaborators researched the Web to find the best da Vinci resources available. We communicated with each other through email.
    Because we wanted our project to be accessible to schoolchildren, we included elements that would be fun to use. We added random research and digital postcard elements. We also included a guest book and site survey to encourage feedback from our visitors. We responded to those who provided contributions from the field.
    The response to our project has been phenomenal. On August 23, 1997, a visitor from Mongolia signed our guest book. Since then, our guest book has been signed each day for over eight months, a continuous chain of support from educators art historians, and school children from more than 48 states and nearly 60 countries. On September 2, 1998, our site became a USA Today “hot site.” On the same day, it was selected as a “cool site” As a result, our site received 2,000 visitors in one day! Our growth has been exponential. In October, Gloria Edwards used our site in a classroom integration session at Purdue University. In November, the newsletter Classroom Connect selected our project for inclusion in its Web guide resource.
    In December, we presented our site at City College, and we were featured on the frontpage of two local newspapers. As a result, we met art historian and author Rina De Firenze who wrote The Mystery of the Mona Lisa. We collaborated with her on the subject of the painting and have added scientific inquiry to our project by comparing her theory with that of Dr. Schwartz. In January 1999, our site was featured on “Rad io Net’s. The Human Factor,” a live broadcast that is also Web-based, and Seeker Magazine gave our site their “site of the month ”distinction.
    The Getty Museum has recently placed our site in their new Digital Experience. We were also featured as a “hot site” for The School Page UK, and we formed a partnership with MidLink Magazine. In March, we presented the project at the Make It Work Conference, sponsored by AT&T and the New York City Board of Education. We were also entered in Teachers’ Choice at The Well Connected Educator, and the encyclopedia Microsoft Encarta included our lesson as part of their collection.
    In April, we were invited to present our project at the SchoolTech Expo at the New York Hilton. As part of the Web publishing workshop by Caroline McCullen, editor of MidLink Magazine, we shared our project with school administrators and teachers. At the School Tech Expo workshop by Robert Sibley, the educational director of ThinkQuest, we expanded the interest in our project to potential ThinkQuesst participants. My students also presented their project as part of the Virtual Class room Experience at the expo. As our project evolves, we continue to expand our partnerships and outreach. We were the Computer Currents Magazine featured link of the Week on May 11, 1998 and are now part of the permanent review section on their site. We were also a featured “site of the month” on Prodigy.
    We anticipate an article in the fall edition of Technology and Learning. As the ThinkQuest head coach, it was my responsibility to keep the ambitious project on schedule and to assist with promotion of the site. The experience has brought exposure to our school, and we will be gettingfour new computer labs and a T1 line at John F. Kennedy in the fall. The students who worked on the project experienced the power of the Internet for collecting links that are pertinent to a given problem construct. As our guest book grew, the students noted how the use of that Internet-supported vehicle could serve as a multigenerational, multisector, collaborative forum. They weighed conflicting evidence, perspectives, and issues evoked by the comments in the guest book and reflected on the differing theories showcased in the project.
    The students also learned how a Web site not only can be a forum for problem construct inquiry and evaluation, but also can serve as a vehicle for project dissemination. The students’ responsibility to code their site so that it would be accessible to all led to their familiarity with and fluency in HTML, Java Applets, and CGI scripting. As researchers, investigators, and Web builders, they also learned the importance of scheduling, staying on track, and daily monitoring of site functions. The students became sensitive and responsive to the evolution of the project in response to the feedback from our participants through our site survey.
    Steve Feld

    Steve Feld is a veteran fine arts instructor who has been infusing computer graphics into the curriculum for over 25 years. He has received numerous awards, including: an Impact II Developer Grant, a Computer Learning Foundation Grand Prize, and the New York State Learning Technologies Championship for his student-created project Da Vinci’s Visions. He has helped the International ThinkQuest team create the award-winning Web site Learning About Leonardo (library.advanced.org/13681). His projects have also been funded by the William T. Grant Foundation and the Bronx Superintendency. He is the author of Computers in the Art Classroom published by the New York City Board of Education.


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