How Does the Internet Work?

The internet makes it possible to almost instantly get information from the other side of the world. But how does it work?

About the Activity

Thanks to the internet, you can play games and watch videos, or have video chats with people halfway across the world on your computer or smartphone. It’s all thanks to the internet, which sends packets of digital information in small bits through both wired and wireless connections, making it possible to have such instantaneous communication.

 

For nearly 40 years, the internet has completely transformed our day-to-day lives. In this activity, we’ll look closely at exactly how the internet works, and how different people and companies use it to share information.

 

You can also use our Augmented Reality experience to learn more about how data works!

 

Grades: 9-12
Topic: STEM
Estimated Time: 30 minutes

 

Brought to you by 4-H Tech Changemakers

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Supplies
You only need a few things for this activity.

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Activity Steps

In this activity, we’ll get creative in demonstrating how a device, browser, web server, and more work together to get you information in a snap.

Network connections may seem complex, but it’s possible to follow the path of data from a web server to the device you're viewing now. It all starts by entering a URL into a web browser. The browser looks up the IP address for the domain name via the Domain Name System (DNS). The browser then sends a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) request to the server, and the server replies with a HTTP response. The browser then kicks into action and begins rendering the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Depending on the website you're visiting, it may need to request additional objects embedded in HTML (such as images, CSS, or JavaScript). Each step in the process serves an important purpose to deliver and translate information for the end user. The following steps offer another way to visualize the process.

  1. Following the printout, fill in the Device box with an IP address to represent your device (and if you have a real device, look it up and use that). Next, write the name of a web browser in the Web Browser box (like Chrome, Safari, or Firefox). Finally, choose an end destination website that you want to ‘visit’ and write the URL name in the box; if you have a web-connected device handy, use a search engine to find that website’s IP address, and fill in that blank.Did you know? Data is transmitted as bits, bytes, megabytes, gigabytes, and other computed data sizes. Understanding binary calculations is important to understanding how things from smartphones to internet service providers (ISPs) transfer information, and it can even help you understand how file size can affect transfer speed.
  2. Now, let’s begin your device’s journey to the website. Pretend that your device searches on the browser for your end destination website when you type in the URL. Draw a line from the device to the browser to demonstrate the action taken by the user. Did you know? The world wide web (www) was only invented in the 1980s! It’s easy to take for granted the amount of information that’s available at our fingertips, but many of the grown-ups in your life will be able to describe what it was like when they had to own encyclopedias, or go to the library to get information about a topic. Different times!
  3. To match the device’s request to the right destination, the browser needs to ask a DNS server to convert the domain URL into a numeric IP address. Draw an arrow from the browser to the DNS server on the printout to show that stage of the process.
  4. Now, the DNS server will search its records for the IP address of the end destination website that it has previously acquired (you can think of a DNS like a warehouse for IP addresses). To show that search-and-find process, draw an arrow from the DNS to the Destination Website, and another arrow from the Destination Website back to the DNS.Did you know? You might commonly say that you’re “using the internet” if you go online; however, being “online” refers to the internet connection. The internet is the network of computers and servers. Think of it like how telephones work, or how roadways and highways are built to navigate in vehicles across the world.
  5. Now that the DNS has retrieved the Destination Website IP, it sends it to the browser; draw an arrow from the DNS, back to the browser.
  6. Now, the browser IP address and the website IP address are now processed back to the device. Draw an arrow from the browser to the device to represent this. Though it happens in a fraction of a second in real life, the message with the IP addresses may check other IP addresses on the network and host options in an effort to match the destination IP address. Once it matches, the data on the end IP address is displayed for the user on the device.
    Did you know? Early computers used ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) to store and process information, but two critical rules made it possible for computers to share information. These two rules are HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) and HTML (HyperText Markup Language), and together, they make the “World Wide Web” work. HTTP is the simple way in which one computer asks another one for web pages, and HTML is the way those pages are written so any computer can understand and display them for the end user.
  7. You might be surprised to realize how many steps can be involved with transferring data from one IP address to another. Consider how the process would have happened if there were more devices and browsers used in the household, or if the end destination website had videos or graphics with large file sizes?Did you know? Every computer and smart device in the world has its own unique address called an IP address, just like every household has its own phone number or its own mailing address. Domain names, like 4-h.org, also correspond to an individual IP address, so when a user types in a domain name, the server knows which IP address with which to share information.

Explore data sizes in Augmented Reality (AR)!

Learn how data and data sizes impact your everyday life with this high-tech AR simulation of data sizes. Scan this QR code with your phone to launch the AR viewer.

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Or go to 4-H.org/DataAR

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Reflection Questions
Bonus questions to inspire wonder.

  1. How can a website populate upon request in just a fraction of a second? Why might the graphics and text appear slower than expected?
  2. Can you translate one of your favorite website domains into its IP address? Use https://www.nslookup.io to give it a try!
  3. How has school changed in part to the changes in technology and the evolution of the internet?
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Investigate and Explore
Take what you've learned to the next level to learn more and explore the possibilities.

Though the internet didn’t evolve into its current complex state, the first email was sent in 1971! Back then, individual computers were large and relatively incompatible, but all could store and process information. By connecting two computers and demonstrating how they could be “networked,” the developers were able to simulate email exchange and begin to evolve communications towards the system we use today.

Plugs in the back of a computer

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