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Wiring The Rain Forest

Robert Ballard went to the bottom of the ocean to find the wreck of the Titanic. Now the veteran American explorer has gone to the heart of the Amazon jungle in search of another prize -- young scientists.

Ballard and a team of 90 scientists and students have hauled more than 30 tons of sophisticated telecommunications equipment into Peru's steamy Amazon River basin to broadcast their expedition live via satellite and the Internet to students around the world.

"We've basically wired up the rain forest," said Ballard, 56, a veteran of 63 underwater explorations, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland in the North Atlantic in 1985 and runs the Mystic, Conn.-based Institute for Exploration.

For two weeks, 20 teen-age students and six teachers are accompanying Ballard and the scientists as they go face to face with leaf-cutter ants, poison dart frogs and the wildlife of one of the world's most biodiverse regions.

The program, which began March 1 and runs through March 12, is part of the Jason Project, which Ballard founded 10 years ago after receiving thousands of letters from children wanting to know how they could become an explorer like him.

The Jason Project uses technology such as satellites, the Internet and videoconferencing to allow students all over the world to virtually accompany scientists on real-life expeditions.

Previous expeditions have been to the Mediterranean Sea, the Galapagos Islands and tiny Belize in Central America.

Students in their classrooms can interact with scientists using two-way video and remote control cameras. The group will give five one-hour live shows a day from the jungle via the Internet.

"We're trying to motivate a large number of students to become involved in science and technology," Ballard said Tuesday via satellite link from the group's jungle-shrouded base camp on the Napo River, 730 miles northeast of Lima.

He said that 50,000 students logged onto the World Wide Web site on Monday, and estimated they would reach 600,000 to 700,000 students by the end of the project.

William Lake Jr., a 14-year-old from South Dorchester High in Cambridge, Md., excitedly recalled seeing a giant, hissing cockroach in the dense jungle foliage.

"So far, I've seen monkeys, toucans, tarantulas, poison dart frogs and a pink dolphin, and it's been one day," said Lake, who plans to study computer animation.

Amy Northrop, 15, from Green Valley High in Las Vegas, has worked with scientists to study water temperatures and sediment content on the jungle-cloaked Sucusari River, a tributary of the Amazon.

"It's been fantastic, but incredibly hot. The temperature on the river reached 135 degrees," Northrop said via satellite link.

Indian healers from local tribes will teach students about native medicines found in the Amazon rain forest, Ballard said.

The Jason Project is sponsored by corporations such as EDS Corp., Exxon Corp., and Sn Microsystems, which are concerned about the supply of engineers and scientists into the workplace, Ballard said.

"I believe that children are born scientists. The first question they ask is 'Why?'"' said Ballard. "We just need to build on their natural curiosity."

Written By David Koop

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