Understanding the Internet

The Internet is a vast network of servers and computers which are connected to one another via phone lines, microwave, satellites, etc. Servers are simply computers that store large amounts of information whose purpose is to “serve” the information they contain to other computers. The Internet has often been described as “The Information Superhighway.” Generally, smaller networks such as the systems found in schools and universities, hospitals, government offices and private business, etc., are all interconnected to form a larger network known as the Internet. The Information contained within the Internet can be retrieved and displayed in a variety of mediums such as telnet, gopher and, most recently, the World Wide Web (WWW) or “The Web.” With telnet, the user (computer operator) must know complex commands in order to access the desired information. Gopher is an easier method to retrieve information where the user types in key words in order to search a database (computer storage of information). The easiest, and by far the most popular, method to retrieve information is through the World Wide Web. In fact, the advent of the World Wide Web is directly responsible for explosive growth of the Internet and the people who access it because it is easy to use (user friendly). The World Wide Web is made up of information that is displayed as “Web pages” or html documents (html stands for hypertext markup language). These Web pages contain hypertext which allows the user to immediately access other Web pages by selecting underlined words or phrases. Most recently this technique has become more sophisticated to allow the user to simply “click” the computer mouse on pictures or icons to access other Web pages. The software that allows the user to click on icons is known as a graphical interface or “browser.” The first successful browser was Mosaic and now the most popular browser is Netscape Navigator.

Until now, it was very difficult to create html documents. The computer language used to make Web pages look graphical is too complicated for the average user to bother with. Luckily, new software called Web editors automatically write the html code while the user designs his/her Web page much like documents are created on word processors. Since 1996, anyone with basic computer skills can have a “presence” on the World Wide Web which has opened the door to anyone who wishes to publish information.

Searching for topics of information has become easier for beginners with catalogs such as Yahoo. Experts who work for Yahoo search for Web pages or Web sites that would most likely interest the general public and compile these in a catalog organized by subject. This is unlike a “search engine” that searches all Web pages for key words within the text of the page.


Science fairs are traditionally a way for students to display their scientific research. These projects consist of a report which describes their research question, hypothesis, experimental design, results (data), discussion of results and a conclusion. Students are also expected to include a literature review. Science fair is a competition in which students' projects are judged based on how well students researched their topic and made proper use of the scientific method. The word “virtual” literally means close to but not in fact, thus the term virtual reality was dubbed to describe a phenomenon experienced on a computer that is normally experienced in the real world. The idea of converting a science fair project into html documents and interviewing students via electronic mail or “email” is now called a “virtual science fair.” It gives students the opportunity to publish their work so that it can be critiqued, appreciated, and used as a resource by a much larger audience than would be possible in a traditional science fair.

The goal of any good ethnographic study is to attempt to generate data from the perspective of the subjects being studied. Clearly, a review of related literature showed a consensus among educators that there are distinct advantages to students who are given the opportunity to publish their research on the World Wide Web; the hypothesis is that students are motivated to work harder if they know that their work will have an audience. However, the existing literature did not adequately portray the perspective of the student. A majority of the research surveyed gave an etic rather than emic perspective of the motivational phenomenon. In other words, researchers observed the behavior of students who participated in publishing projects on the World Wide Web and deduced that the resultant work was of a higher quality and that the students had an enthusiastic approach--they have done an inadequate job portraying how the students, themselves, felt. There is a smattering of students' science fair projects that have been published on the World Wide Web, and there is no documentation which attests to the success of such endeavors, particularly from the viewpoint of the student. Furthermore, there are few educators who possess the expertise to lead students through the process of publishing their work on the World Wide Web. Many educators have access to the equipment and software that are necessary for publishing, but lack the knowledge of how to use it (Silva & Breuleux, 1994). They are also unaware of the motivational effect that publishing has on students.