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Heading Outdoors to Learn How Data Moves on the Internet

September 24, 2020

Learning how data moves on the internet meant heading outdoors for 4th grade and for Upper School students in AP Computer Science.

The internet is based on a concept called a distributed network. Originally developed during the Cold War as a means of resiliency, this system provides for the extremely high reliability of the internet.

For this hands-on lesson, three AP students played the role of network engineers, while 4th graders were packets. Data is transported by packets from their origin to their destination along routes with nodes. Each node in the network connects to multiple others, meaning that if a single node is destroyed, there are always available alternative routes.

Fourth grade students selected a picture of an animal - an arctic fox, a snow leopard, and a mallard duck, for example - to indicate their destinations in the network. AP students held up signs such as foxes, big cats, and ducks so 4th graders knew where to go.

The packets tested the network by running to their destinations as quickly as possible, briefly stopping in nodes, which were indicated by hula hoops.

“What is the problem with a single server node?” teacher Peter Wade asked.

“It gets backed up,” a 4th grader said.

The network engineers observed how quickly - or slowly - the packets moved and determined where to make improvements, which sometimes meant placing server nodes in different configurations.

When Mr. Wade asked AP students how they would improve the network to make it more efficient, they added another node so data could transfer faster.

“We are learning about networks, and this is a way for us to visually see it and see how we can go to each server to help the internet connection,” said AP student Lydia M. ‘21. “I’m a visual learner, so this helps me because it’s a much easier way for me to understand it.”