Evolving Technology Helps Kids Get Early Start

By ALAN OLSON

Staff Writer

To start young students off on the fast track to academic success, many schools in the area have begun integrating technology into the lesson plans of their youngest students, before increasingly technological work becomes the norm as the students get older.

Marshall County public school students began implementing iPads into their curriculum as young as kindergarten, up through second grade. County Technology Coordinator Carla Garrison said the process to integrate technology into the classrooms began three years ago, with just five iPads, steadily adding more, with the last batch being sent out to the county’s schools in the last week of January.

The young students participate in a program, eSpark, a self-paced and personalized reading and math course. Included in the course are regular video scripts, which the students author for themselves, and submit recorded videos of themselves to teachers to track progress.

McNinch Elementary teacher Shay Ryan said the eSpark program allows for learning at a highly specific rate for the students.

“It helps differentiate and get on their level, even more than a small group can, because it hones in on their skills,” Ryan said. “I have a wide range of ability levels in class. …. Here, this is more interactive, and they get excited about it. At first, they’d be shy and wouldn’t do it, but now they get it. It helps them with their public speaking, and speaking in general.”

“Everybody’s got something to keep them busy, so if they need to pull someone aside for specific help, it makes it easier to manage,” Garrison added.

Ryan said eSpark gave the children more time to focus on whole-class materials when used, with individual assistance being significantly less disruptive since its implementation.

In addition, each school is equipped with at least one computer lab, and several mobile labs stocked with laptops.

The proliferation of technology, Garrison said, is a big step up from the past couple years as the iPad count was increased, finally meeting its goal of one iPad per student in 2017. Without having to share devices, Garrison said each student’s progress is personal and not subject to factors such as being caught out ahead or behind where they were, due to other students doing the same exercise at a different rate.

Middle school science teachers, Garrison added, expect to have Cloudbook computers, which connect to virtual desktops without requiring individual installations, during this year.

“With these lower-cost Cloudbooks, we’re about to start putting more out there,” she said. “While you can’t load Photoshop, but they do what you want to do. English classes want to do research, type papers. We’re just trying to get everyone what they need to start doing what they need to do.”

Garrison said teachers have responded well to this program, which, in a statewide partnership with Microsoft, provides email addresses for students, each of which comes with a Microsoft Office 365 suite to install on various home computers and other devices. This, coupled with the ability to participate in the learning process with the same eSpark program at home, have led to a warm reception with parents.

In third grade, Garrison said, students begin taking on heavier workloads that have led to teachers resisting integration of devices into the curriculum. However, at higher grades, technology again resurfaces, with Project Lead the Way STEM initiatives in several county schools, which include not only laptops and iPads, but scientific equipment and specialized labs. Among the equipment made available at John Marshall High School, Cameron High School, and others.

At Sherrard, teachers Brice Brannan and Ruth Keim oversee the STEM lab, where students utilize a variety of tools big and small to tackle engineering and crafts projects, from handheld tools, to 3D printers, to massive lathes and laser cutters.

The heavier machinery, Keim said, has been a boon for crafts and fundraisers, allowing students to custom-make products for use or sale, including full-sized chairs and laser-etched pine boxes.

“It’s really cool, because you can really maximize what you want to do,” Brannan said. “We even have a lathe that we can even cut glass with.”

Despite the large scale of the equipment, no mishaps have yet occurred, which Keim said is thanks to the respect the students have for such an impressive machine.

“We have to be really diligent, but we haven’t had any problems,” Keim said. “The kids are so excited to work with this, they really respect it. They just want to see how it works.”

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