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Students will see rain forest via satellite

For dozens of Tampa Bay school children, it'll be the next best thing to strapping on an air tank or climbing shoes.

Students will be flocking to Mote Marine Laboratory over the next two weeks to take part in an unusual educational event that uses interactive television and a lot of imagination.

Students in grades 4 through 12 will take an electronic field trip to the Central American country of Belize via a satellite link at Mote. They'll see rain forests, coral reefs and a Maya city close up.

Through interactive television, they'll get to see and talk directly with scientists standing in a treehouse in the forest canopy. Using a remote control, a lucky few will get to guide the movements of a video camera up and down the trunk of a tree in search of insects.

And they'll pilot a motorized underwater camera through schools of brightly colored tropical fish.

Even though Belize is 800 miles away, the students who will visit Mote through March 12 are part of the Jason Project. The annual event is sponsored by the National Geographic Society and Electronic Data Systems Corp. and is directed by explorer Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985.

Now in its fifth year, the Jason Project focuses on teaching students about different environments on the planet. Mote has been a site for the live broadcasts each year since 1989, when an expedition examined sunken Roman ships in the Mediterranean. Other years featured Baja California and the Great Lakes.

Mote is one of 21 sites in North America, Great Britain and Bermuda where the interactive link will be set up for students. Two others are in Florida, at Sea World in Orlando and the Duval County school system.

Of the researchers going to Belize, three are from the Sarasota area. Heidi Baracchini, a 15-year-old sophomore at Palmetto High School, is one of 24 students called "Argonauts" given scholarships to attend.

All have their own research projects to do; Heidi plans to compare the mangrove swamps of Belize to those in Florida. She's considering a career in marine biology.

In addition, television shows about the Jason Project, but not the live feed, will be shown by the Mind Extension Institute on local cable television.

A final summary show will run on April 22, Earth Day.

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