Classrooms of the future

Gateway High's 16 science classes part of pilot program to computerize teaching

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On a recent Thursday afternoon, Cheryl Teaters, a biology teacher at Monroeville's Gateway High School, started her ninth-grade honors class with a review quiz of the nervous system.

The first multiple-choice question she put on the board dealt with the identification of parts of a neuron. As the students selected their answers, a yellow line ticked across the top of the white SMART board that is mounted on the classroom's green chalkboard.

All 29 students in the class were equipped with black wireless laptop computers, and they used egg-shaped remote controls to answer the question. With a simple click of an icon on the SMART board, Ms. Teaters tabulated the fact that at least 80 percent of the class picked the right response.

She did the same thing for the next three questions, and when less than 80 percent of the class picked the right answer, she immediately stopped the quiz. She knew she needed a more thorough review of the nervous system because it was obvious that much of the class didn't fully understand the previous class' material.

Welcome to one of Gateway's 16 Classrooms of the Future, in which teachers and school officials say technology is quickly changing the pace of classroom activity, long-established methods of teaching, and enhancing the way students learn.

In Ms. Teaters' class the students and the teacher meet in a virtual world that allows them to sail through class material faster, while emphasizing the key points of a lesson.

The Promethean Activboard is, in effect, the equivalent of a computer desktop on an interactive platform. It interfaces with the teacher's computer, students' laptops, and a number of wireless controls used by the teacher and students.

For example, when Ms. Teaters wanted to review the structure of nodes in the nervous system, she pulled up a diagram and, using certain tools on the SMART board, she could move the diagram, magnify it and highlight certain parts for emphasis.

If she wanted to notate the diagram, she could. And if she wanted to store the notated diagram for the students, she could. With the stroke of an icon on the SMART board, she would save the document as a PDF file, and then upload it to the class's secure Web page.

It is this integration of technology into classrooms that is "really changing the classroom culture and helping us to become better educators," Cleveland Stewart, superintendent of the Gateway School District, told a group of district board members and elected officials last Friday.

On a tour of the first classrooms for the future in the Gateway School District, the group was shown how Gateway High School -- one of 103 pilot schools in Gov. Ed Rendell's three-year plan to furnish high schools with computerized classrooms -- is integrating the use of technology in classrooms.

The Gateway School District received a $407,573 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which launched the program that was budgeted at $20 million in last year's state budget.

Gateway, which has started the program in all of its science classes, is applying for grants to extend the program into its remaining 37 classrooms.

In her class, Ms. Teaters explained that the addition of the SMART board, laptop computers, digital and video cameras has "broadened our horizons in how we go about teaching.

"Much of what we have incorporated into the classrooms is nothing new to many of our students. They already use much of what we're now just bringing into the classroom," Ms. Teaters said.

One elemental advantage of all the new gadgets is the convenience it affords both teachers and students, said Brian Stamford, who oversees Gateway's classrooms for the future program.

"Because of this, teachers can create a quick test or quiz to get immediate feedback on the material they are teaching, and they can even instantaneously track particular students' performance," Mr. Stamford explained.

He added that classrooms wired with such high-tech capabilities add to what teachers and students can do with course management systems like Moodle, which are increasingly commonplace in high school and college settings.

An open-source software package with which students and teachers can interact in online communities, Moodle, together with Inspiration Software -- a visual thinking and learning application tool -- have completely redefined the notion of homework and all but nullified almost all excuses for not finishing one's homework or assignment.

"All of these classroom improvements allow teachers to create assignments, which they can post online during class time," Mr. Stamford said.

"The students can then start working on their homework during class or before they leave school, and once they're done, the teacher can access the work immediately."

But Ms. Teaters was quick to caution that technology is not the panacea for contemporary teaching standards. "We have to be careful about how we incorporate it into the lesson plan," she said, adding, "I still use my chalkboard."

As the program's school level administrator, Mr. Stamford also noted that the teachers' comfort levels with the kind of technological jumps they have to make in their classrooms will determine the efficiency of all the new gadgets as teaching tools.

And so far, the introduction of the SMART board has been "easier for younger teachers, while some of the older teachers might have had some trouble maneuvering the equipment," Mr. Stamford said.

State Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville, a Gateway High School alumnus whom school district officials credited for his role in securing funding for the program, said initiatives like Classrooms for the Future underline the importance of education funding in the state.

"It is because of programs like this that education was a line in the sand three years ago when we had that long budget debate in Harrisburg," said Mr. Logan. He was joined by state Rep. Joseph Markosek, D-Monroeville.

During a Friday morning period, the officials toured three science classes in which teachers were applying different aspects of the SMART board in their classes.

In one biology class, the students were using their Activote modules to answer questions on a brain and spinal cord quiz, while another class used an ActiveStudio application to review the fertilization process through the fallopian tube.

Next to the periodic table of elements in a 10th-grade chemistry class was a black and white poster of Albert Einstein, with a caption, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

And as the students used their Inspiration Software application to link chemical concepts on their laptops, Bill Bailey, a retired Westinghouse engineer and mathematics professor at Community College of Allegheny County, remarked , "Poor Albert Einstein didn't have the benefit of all this."


Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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