By Melissa Mitchell Agriculture students preparing for successful careers in the 21st century are learning how to find the fastest route to the information superhighway. From the get-go, students in Agriculture/Human Resources and Family Studies 101 - one of the college's early "Discovery" courses that focuses on contemporary issues in the food, human and natural resource systems - are required to become proficient in the use of computer networking tools. From campus and departmental computer labs or from their residences, students quickly learn to use network browsers such as NCSA Mosaic - developed at the UI - to link to the course's "Discovery System" home page on the Internet's World Wide Web. John Schmitz, director of the Agricultural Instructional Media Lab, which specializes in the creation of Web documents, said the system was inaugurated in 1993 and expanded last fall for use by 475 freshman. He said the system was created "to experiment with providing students an 'integrated learning environment' that provides multiple resources and capabilities all in one place." It also was designed as "a method for capturing more of students' out-of-class time and as a way to link students to global Internet resources," he said. Students use the Discovery System during the first part of the course to learn networking skills and concepts, as well as to explore opportunities for studies and careers. In addition, Schmitz said, the system introduces students to "powers of the mind" by providing guides on such topics as critical thinking, writing, communications and problem-solving. Plus, it points them to Internet sites relevant to various agricultural fields. Schmitz said the system complements students' printed Discovery Manual, and is used throughout the semester as students learn how to search the Internet for resources. While many students are attracted to the system's sophisticated color graphics and ease of use, Schmitz said it is too soon to gauge the technology's effects on learning. "Evidence is only anecdotal for now," he said. "I know some students who 'went to' the Food and Agricultural Organization at the United Nations server during the week of Dean Gomes' lecture on 'Global Systems.' The students were amazed with the international food statistics available." While "generally interested and intrigued by the technology," many freshmen still struggle with computer anxiety and what Schmitz terms "information overload" - having too much information at their fingertips. To help alleviate the latter problem, Schmitz said artist Mary Connors and computer graphics specialist Aaron Buckley - both Lab staff members - have developed "clickable landscape maps" that "organize information more efficiently, attractively and holistically for students." At last count, the "classes on the Web" link on the College of Engineering's home page indicated Web sites have been developed for use in more than 50 other UI courses across the academic landscape. In some cases, the pages contain little more than course descriptions or syllabi. Others are more complex, and may include lecture notes, indices of course material, reading lists and home pages of instructors and students. Notable among these is Alfred Hubler's Physics 101 site. Using video projection units connected to a Silicon Graphics workstation in his lecture hall, Hubler actually incorporates the Web material as part of in-class instruction. "So far, it has been successful," he said. "We can offer the course as a coherent package: the lecture, the electronic homework and the labs are hyperlinked and fit together. The student can review the lecture material after the lecture, including movies, sound and demonstrations, without buying expensive commercial software." Using a new program called Physica, designed by Hubler, Lance Arsenault and Brian Rogers at the Beckman Institute's Center for Complex Systems Research, students are now able to go to the Web site to do homework problem sets containing sound and other multimedia features, turn in the homework and have it graded promptly. Hubler said the main differences between Physica and other computer grading packages include: * Easy and fast access for students and faculty at no cost for the software. * Problem sets that take full advantage of sound and other multimedia features of high-end personal computers and high data-transfer rates on the Internet. * Hyperlinked help files of problem sets and lecture notes. * Students' ability to use interactive drawing software to produce graphical material such as vector diagrams or electronic circuits. * Careful analysis of student answers, based on the most recent complex systems data analysis techniques, which includes the awarding of partial credit for answers. Incredibly, Hubler said his course has "probably one of the most active web servers in the world, with about 15,000 requests per week" from as far afield as Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Greece, Finland and even Chechnya. The Physica grading package "already has high visibility worldwide" as well, something Hubler finds extremely surprising "since we are just developing it and to our knowledge it has not yet been announced anywhere." Another feature included at the Physics 101 Web site is a newsletter, which Hubler compiles to keep students updated on what's happening in the course. In large part, the articles reflect Hubler's commitment to creating a learning environment that encourages dialogue between the instructor and his class. For instance, the current newsletter includes an article in which Hubler congratulates students for their role in changing a 25-year-old policy governing the time of nightly network interruptions on the campus's NovaNet system and a note informing them that their course was featured in a Daily Illini story. Other articles indicate where to find solutions to past hourly exams, a reminder that students have the option of doing homework on paper "in a nice, stimulating environment" if they prefer, a faculty obituary and a "classified" ad for "tutors wanted." At the end of the newsletter, Hubler reminds students that they are "experiencing the challenges and excitement of forefront technology." And, he concludes, "This experience will keep you on top." The message isn't lost on Hubler's students. "The response is enthusiastic," he said. "This semester's drop-out rate was almost a factor of 10 lower than usual one week after the first hour exam. The number of course additions exceeded the drop-outs so that the net drop-out rate is negative. This is unheard of for this course." Further, he said, "class attendance is high, and many students participate very actively, developing software and homework problems for the Web. For example, Jigar Desai, a student in the class, has written 22 Web homework problems for his classmates." Students aren't the only ones who benefit from using the technology, however. "When the students are enthusiastic, I am enthusiastic, too," Hubler said. "This makes teaching fun."