Making schools SMARTer - Tucson Local Media: Import

Making schools SMARTer

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Posted: Tuesday, October 14, 2003 11:00 pm

It's an ordinary school day, and a schoolteacher is teaching an ordinary subject to elementary school children.

As often happens in class, the subject veers in an unexpected direction - to the Smithsonian Institution.

The teacher senses an opportunity to break away from the ordinary.

"How many of you have been there?" she asks.

"Let's see if we can go there," she says.

With that, she touches a few spots on what looks like a dry-erase board in the front of her classroom, and the students are off on a virtual tour of one of America's greatest art collections.

This may sound like something from a novel by Ray Bradbury, the widely read science fiction writer who attended Amphitheater Public Schools long ago, but it's not.

It happened at the new St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, which opened its doors in August next to the Catholic church on Shannon Road that bears the saint's name.

The school, which serves pre-kindergartners through third graders and plans to add all grades through eighth by 2008, combines centuries-old symbolism - a crucifix in every classroom - with technology that allows students to make virtual trips together from one spot on the globe to another.

"We can take them to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican, too," said Suzanne Shadonix, the school's principal.

The mode of transportation is SMART Boards.

These interactive devices, which look just like dry-erase boards, were conceived of by Canadian innovator David Martin back in the 1980s. They didn't hit the market, though, until 1991.

Designed with black-suited conference goers in mind, the boards livened up tired PowerPoint presentations.

The boards displayed projections of materials on a connected computer screen, but they also responded to touch. Fingers became computer mouses, scrolling text up and down and double-clicking. Fingers also became pens, capable of covering the board with scribbled notes that were savable.

The boards displayed Web sites, DVD movies and computer programs - all they needed was a special projector, a computer and synchronizing software.

Before long, school administrators began imagining other possibilities for the boards.

"By connecting it to the Internet, it was so apparent that we could take our children anywhere in the world," said Shadonix, whose school also has six computers in each of its eight classrooms.

The eager principal discovered SMART Boards two school years ago, when she was nurturing the minds and souls of children at Our Mother of Sorrows School in East Tucson.

A computer teacher at the school invited her to attend a talk by a SMART Board representative from Phoenix.

Plans were in the works for St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School at that time - the first elementary school to go up in 46 years in the Diocese of Tucson.

Shadonix liked the boards, and thought the time was right to wire the new school's classrooms for them.

"One of the biggest problems with SMART Boards, I would imagine, is putting in the whole infrastructure," she said. "I was thinking, 'Oh gosh - we could do that. It wouldn't be a huge expense. It would just be part of what we were doing already."

In September of last year, classroom construction began. By August, the school's present classrooms were up, complete with SMART Board wiring.

Even so, the technology wasn't cheap.

Each projector and SMART Board setup cost about $3,500, Shadonix said, and that was with a grant from SMARTer Kids Foundation.

"I thought we could afford to do them because of science," she said.

Since science textbooks become out-dated quickly, the school opted to do away with them all together and use the Internet and SMART Boards to teach the subject, instead.

Other Arizona schools are turning to the interactive boards, too.

In a 2002 technology plan for education, approved by the Arizona State Board of Education, schools were encouraged to use grants to make classrooms high-tech.

"We encourage the establishment or expansion of initiatives including those involving public-private partnerships that are designed to increase access to technology," it said.

A regional supplier of SMART Boards said thousands of the boards have been placed in Arizona schools.

Lynne Coté, a biology teacher at Mountain View High School, has one.

It's part of what she received from a $160,000 Intel grant for computer equipment for her classroom.

Using the SMART Board, she trains her students to create PowerPoint presentations and consult Web sites for college preparation.

"It's a really great way to show people how to use a computer in a group setting," she said.

Coté travels around the country showing teachers how they can incorporate technology into their classrooms. A member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, she also plans to show teachers at the new school how to use their new SMART Boards.

Karen Nolan, a fifth-grade teacher at Mesa Verde Elementary School, also uses an interactive board. One of her student's parents donated it to her class.

She uses it when teaching math and science.

Last year, before she mounted the board on the wall, she found that it got unaligned each time someone bumped it.

Now it's stationary, though, and doing its job well.

"This way, it works wonderfully," she said.

Across the United States, some teachers have expressed frustration with the boards in addition to satisfaction.

Sometimes young children accidentally activate spots on the boards by leaning on them while trying to write. Also, students cast shadows on the boards while working on them.

At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, teachers just appear dazzled by the baord's possibilities.

In classrooms with sacred spaces housing Bibles, crucifixes and candles, students move the Stations of the Cross into the correct order using their fingers as computer mouses.

For science, they build virtual roller coasters on SMART Boards and roll virtual balls over them to test their structural workability.

"We are all in the process of discovery," Shadonik said about the board's possibilities. "We discover things every day."

Last week, Kelley Islas' second-grade class took a virtual tour of the National Mall.

A chorus of "cool" rang out as the students watched a 360-degree video pan of the grounds.

Later, one student got the attention of her school principal.

"Yesterday we went on a trip to Washington D.C.," she said to Shadonix. She paused for effect before adding, "on the SMART Board."

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