Beginning next fall, students in suburban Allegheny County schools will be able to visit museums and zoos, take classes in unique subjects and speak with experts worldwide.
And they won't even need to leave their classrooms.
The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center in Oakland held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday to announce that 3ROX -- the Three Rivers Optical Exchange -- is now in operation in Allegheny Center Mall on the North Side.
The 3ROX is a cost-effective, high-quality computer network connection for academic, government and commercial members throughout the region.
Once all the connections are made, the network will include 128 school districts and 831 school buildings in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. That will allow 390,500 students and 28,239 teachers to cruise the fast lane of the informational superhighway.
The network will provide bandwidth multiple times more powerful than what's currently available in schools, with opportunity for further expansion.
The high performance network will link public schools to universities, corporations, government research agencies and not-for-profit networking organizations. It will provide a means to take virtual field trips, receive lectures on unique topics and do teleconferencing.
"It's going to bring high quality interactive educational content to county school buildings so students will be able to interact with scientists, historians and museums around the world," said Tim Devlin, program director for instructional media services with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. "Students may never leave Allegheny County, but we can take them around the world through this network."
Pittsburgh Public Schools connected to the PSC's network at the Mellon Institute in the 1990s, with several intermediate units in other counties in Western Pennsylvania connecting in recent years.
Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, Waynesburg and West Virginia universities already are 3ROX members.
The supercomputing center had long provided a network connection at the Mellon Institute. The new Allegheny Center Mall facility provides universities a backup service so they won't go without high-quality access.
Wendy Huntoon, the center's director of the networking group, said suburban Pittsburgh school districts will begin coming online next fall. That means schools can share educational resources.
Its location at Allegheny Center Mall, where other networking and Internet companies are based, makes it cost effective to connect with networks in Ohio.
Mr. Devlin said a school offering special classes could offer instruction online to other schools for a fee.
A monthly network fee of $2,800, or $33,600 a year, for each school district will offset the $9 million cost of linking each school building in Allegheny County to the network. Mr. Devlin said 3ROX provides "a cost effective connection with the rest of the world."
The 3ROX's North Side facility provides access to the private, high-speed network for education and health organizations called Internet2 and to the National Lambda Rail, which serves the research community.
Mr. Devlin said Allegheny County students soon will be able to take virtual field trips to the Indianapolis Zoo and the Little League Hall of Fame, as two examples.
"The best example I've seen so far was the Cleveland Museum of Art with a live curator who can interact with students and teachers," he said. "There were virtual images, as if you were walking through the museum."
With a larger market available, universities and others will begin producing educational programs on various topics, including programs from NASA, that schools can use.
The center is a joint effort among Carnegie Mellon, Pitt and Westinghouse Electric and is one of three national supercomputing centers.
"We would never be able to afford the investment that PSC is putting together on our behalf," Mr. Devlin said.
David Templeton can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1578.