We’re ‘imagineering’ our K-4 Computer Lab into a STEM experience. Join our journey!

Posted on May 23, 2012 by kjarrett Comments Off

RE-INVENT

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to re-invent your classroom?

I have. For quite a while. Years, in fact.

What would you do? Where would you start? What would your objectives be?

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The photo above is my lab as it appeared in September 2003, my first year teaching. Twenty-six Dell Optiplex PCs with 6.4 gb hard drives, 15″ CRTs and Windows 98SE. State-of-the-art equipment at the time. (Some will recognize that giant grey box on the right – it’s a projector.)

K-4 Computer Lab, circa 2012

Fast forward to this school year, nine years later (above). The PCs are still Dell Optiplexes, just several generations newer. Students use the SMART Board (donated to me & my classroom by SMART Corporation) every day. We have other cool tools too, like QX5 Computer Microscopes. It’s an oasis of learning technologies.

While the hardware has changed over the years (and my lessons have too), my students still sit at fixed stations, working on their own, for 42 minutes, once a week. Everyone does the same thing, at the same time, using the same software.

It’s time for a change. It’s time for something new…

Let’s be honest: some consider fixed labs an anachronism, a throwback to a time when computers were so expensive only a small number could be purchased and they had to be housed in a single location so that as many people as possible could utilize them. And, while labs may be the most efficient way to provide students with a 1:1 computing experience (albeit for just part of the day), whether or not they are the most effective means to do so from an instructional perspective is another matter, and the essence of what is driving our ideology.

We have been talking for months about an exciting new direction for our K-4 Computer Lab. It all began as a suggestion from a parent, Mrs. Amy Hughes, an elementary technology teacher in nearby Margate, NJ. Her suggestion turned into conversations with NCS teachers and district leaders. Brainstorms erupted. A formal presentation was made to our district Curriculum Committee, and ultimately, we received approval for what we are now calling “K4STEMLAB.”

The K4STEMLAB vision is to combine the best of what we now know as “Computer Lab” and hands-on, inquiry-driven “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) projects in a brand-new, as-yet-undesigned mobile learning classroom space. Students will continue coming to my class, with their classroom teacher, on their assigned “Computer Lab” day. Lessons & activities will be either “ICT” (for Information & Computer Technology, essentially what we do now) or “STEM.” The former may be similar to lessons we have used in the past, but reframed in a science context. The latter will be completely new units of inquiry incorporating, among other things, the Engineering is Elementary activities and curriculum. (I received a $3,000 grant from Raytheon Corporation to attend an EiE professional development workshop this summer and purchase materials for my classroom.) Our instructional foundation will be based on the newly-announced Next Generation Science Standards, as well as the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards for Science (5.x) and Technology (8.x), AND a creative interpretation of the Common Core Standards. Our new lab is going to ROCK!

We have seen the future and it is MOBILE, COLLABORATIVE and ALWAYS-ON

This evolution of the NCS elementary computer lab is the result of many forces converging at once. Thanks to a very successful pilot of Google Chromebooks in our 4th grade this year (funded by our generous community and amazing Parent-Teacher Organization), we are now confident that Chromebooks (the hardware) and Google Apps for Education (the software) are not only viable but essential to our instructional mission.

We will still use Microsoft products, just not exclusively. We live in a blended world, a world where we interact with a variety of technologies every day, more and more of which are web-based. Therefore, we want to provide students with seamless access to the information and resources they need, on whatever device they are using, wherever they happen to be. Groundbreaking technologies available today (like Google Apps and Classlink’s Launchpad product, for example) can make this possible.

Our district is evaluating highly competitive proposals for enterprise wireless connectivity and we are developing appropriate “bring your own technology” policies that make sense for us. Best of all, NCS teachers and staff are at the epicenter of this effort, dedicating themselves to finding creative ways to leverage these technologies in the classroom to help students learn.

Goals of the New Program

There are many things we want to accomplish with this “reboot” of our K-4 Computer Lab program. Some can be described with references to instructional standards, others with metrics relating to skill proficiency. Our district also adopted a strategic goal this year to develop a K-8 STEM program; our efforts represent a solid step in that direction. But the most important goal, in my view at least, is developing an appreciation for scientific inquiry – and in particular, the engineering process – as shown below in this graphic from the Museum of Science:

Image credit: Museum of Science, Boston

We are confident that this framework will provide students with a powerful context to build a foundation of critical skills and an interest in careers in science, technology, math and engineering. At its core, education is all about inspiration, isn’t it?

Join Us!

We will launch our new program in September, 2012. (It’s going to be a busy summer.) More importantly, this is going to be a “learning year” for everyone. We are confident that we can develop a powerful new experience drawing on the strengths of our existing curriculum while we inject new, innovative and cost-effective technologies. We are looking for strategic vendor partners, collaborating classrooms, experts on learning space design, interested community members, anyone who wants to be part of this new, exciting adventure for our students. Follow the fun on our new blog: http://blogs.ncs-nj.org/k4stemlab/.

This post is part of a series about our plans to “reinvent” my K-4 Computer Lab class as a STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology & Math) course starting in September 2012. By “thinking out loud” here I hope to keep stakeholders apprised of our ideas, activities & progress while I gain wisdom and perspective from anyone who cares to join the conversation.

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