South Park students envision classroom of the future

Grants allow for science-based, high-tech opportunities

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Imagine an elementary classroom with floating pencils that can be summoned by students, floor-to-ceiling interactive whiteboards and iPads for every student, loaded with textbooks and assignments, eliminating the need for heavy backpacks.

Instead of sitting in rows of desks, students would sit in groups around touch tables -- "smart" tables with interactive surfaces resembling large computer tablets that would allow students to collaborate with each other and the teacher.

Swimming nearby in a salt-water pool would be various species of aquatic life that students would study and care for, and robotic teacher's aides would move throughout the room helping students while teachers focus on instruction.

And, to study the constellations, students would come to school at night, and part of the building's roof would roll back to show the stars in real time.

Those are some of the scenarios students at South Park Elementary created in recent months as they used their imaginations and $100,900 in technology the school purchased with two grants to create their visions of what the classroom of the future should look like.

To participate in the project, groups of students at each level in grades 1-4 gave up their recess periods to brainstorm, research and produce videos of their concepts. The students presented those videos to the school board at a recent meeting and sent copies of their presentations to the Grable Foundation.

The grant applications were written by first grade teacher Dawn Byron and second grade teachers Carey Fittipaldo, Debbie Hartman, Janis Jackovic and Sue Lulich. The group saw a need for updated technology at their school and before pursuing the grant had organized, with other teachers, fundraisers that included restaurant nights, book fairs and test drive events for a local car dealer.

Gregg Behr, executive director of the Grable Foundation, said the teachers' efforts to make things better for their students was part of the reason the school received the grant money.

"It was the creativity in the proposal design and the obvious commitment on the part of the teachers. Not only were they committed, enterprising teachers, they were clearly selfless and trying to do so much to do better for their kids," Mr. Behr said. He also credited district administrators, who have matched some of the grant funds with district money for technology purchases.

The first grant received by the school was for $80,900 from Grable and was based on the proposal to design the classroom of the future. District officials used it to purchase five iPad carts, each holding 28 iPads.

The district also purchased some classroom Smartboards and some apps for the iPads, as well as upgrading and expanding its wireless capacity, said Richard Platts, director of technology.

The second $20,000 grant came from the Center for Creativity at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and was funded by the Grable and Benedum foundations specifically for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) projects. The school used that grant to transform a traditional computer lab into a new STEAM room, where an open house was held last week.

The students who participated in the classroom design project met three or four times per week for more than a month this spring. For some ideas, they used the new iPads to search the internet for classroom technology. For other ideas, they searched their imaginations for ways to make their days more efficient, exciting and comfortable.

The floating pencil idea came from the fact that students frequently lose or forget their writing utensils and have to ask the teacher. While students didn't actually work through the technology that would be required to float pencils throughout a room, they all agreed it would be a handy option "if you lose your pencil like I've done," said Marina Malacki, 9.

The use of touch tables instead of desks was popular with most of the student groups, because the students said it would save paper and remove the need for students to always look at the teacher and to stretch their necks to see past taller students.

"What the teacher puts on the board would show up on your smart table," said Carter Piel, 8.

The students also suggested a stress reduction room where students could go when they are feeling overwhelmed, particularly students with special needs who may need time to decompress on a daily basis. The room would have soft lights, bean bag chairs and pillows, and would be a place where students "can go and let it all out," said Jenna Al-Masrahi, 8. While it would be for students only, teachers would be able to communicate with students via a microphone.

For their comfort, students suggested heated, cushioned seats and a fountain with drink selections other than water.

And, for fun, some students said they'd like to have a robotic pet in their room. While it may not be as soft and furry as a real pet, it would have one significant advantage: "You wouldn't have to clean up after it," Marina said.

Mary Niederberger; or 412-263-1590.

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