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As the surgery progressed before them, the 30 juniors and seniors in John Redelsheimer's class reacted to crystal-clear images of sliced flesh and bone with predictable groans and urrrghs. They asked questions of the surgical staff, such as how long the implant might last, and how a full and partial knee replacement differ.

Students in the Robbinsdale Armstrong High School anatomy and physiology class observed Wednesday as a surgeon in Columbus, Ohio, performed total knee-replacement surgery on an 85-year-old woman. And they didn't even board a bus.

Students in the Robbinsdale district are among a select group for whom technological expertise and resources have aligned to allow them to take an e-field trip -- in this case, to Dr. Joel Politi's operating room. Other classes have been to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., a classroom in Egypt and a village in Mozambique.

The session was sponsored by COSI, a science center in Columbus, Ohio. It was made possible by Web-driven video-conferencing technology via Internet2, a superfast network linking universities, industry and government. The basic technology -- the cameras and microphones -- isn't new, but schools haven't been able to use it fully until recently because most lack that fast, powerful connection.

"We've got country roads in place, and we want to drive RVs on them," said Leslie Yoder, incoming president of the Minnesota Educational Media Organization (MEMO), an umbrella group for school media and technology specialists. "We need newer, wider roads, and it's very, very expensive, and given the realities of schools and budgets these days, finding ways to increase the pipeline, increasing the bandwidth, can be very complex."

Most districts, Yoder said, also require a staff member who can manage equipment, secure funding and make the connections for the sessions to happen.

In Robbinsdale schools, the technology and the connection have been available for about 2 1/2years, said Jane Prestebak, program director for media and instructional technology. In her district, media and tech specialists have teamed to offer video-conferencing training to teachers on staff development days.

Until the past couple of years, Prestebak said, another big challenge had been in finding partners in education, research and industry with whom students could talk via video conference.

Fewer than half of Minnesota school districts have harnessed the potential of Internet2, Yoder estimated. She noted that those that have tend to be wealthier districts or places that have access to supplemental federal funding.

Gail Wheatley, director of electronic education at COSI, said the science center interacts with students in 44 states and three foreign countries. COSI offers sessions on knee replacement and open-heart surgery, autopsies, forensics, fire ecology, gadgetry, science careers and more, all aimed at students in kndergarten through grade 12.

COSI programs cost from $150 to $300, but other organizations, such as NASA, offer programs for free.

'A quantum leap'

Armstrong media specialist Jack Mohabir has seen lots of changes since he started in the district in 1992.

"It has been like a quantum leap from 1992 to today," he said, noting that Web-savvy teens help to drive the way the curriculum is presented.

No one said virtual field trips are likely to take the place of real, get-on-the-bus, hands-on field trips. But the Web gives students experiences they'd never get otherwise.

"Putting your hands on something is very, very valuable, but being able to bring 60 people into an operating room is impossible," Prestebak said. "It doesn't replace the field trips that are local, but it gives a new variation to the field trip that can cover a whole new ground."

Just over an hour after he made the first incision, Dr. Politi whipped sutures into the skin on his patient's completed knee, took a few final questions, then signed off.

A few students reflected on what they had seen. Some are interested in medical careers; others just wanted a complete education. For some, it was a little too complete.

"The sound of the saw made me weak in the knees," said senior Christian Labissoniere.

"Kneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee," Walker Glasoe mimicked.

The class already had taken a field trip to the University of Minnesota, where students handled much of the equipment they saw in Politi's operating room.

"Seeing it actually come into action, seeing the equipment being used, was a good opportunity," senior Nicole Napiwocki said

Junior Megan Miller agreed. "I think we've been privileged to experience something like this."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409