Altoona School Center Increases Community-Wide Use of New Technology

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The Center for Advanced Technologies opened in January, 1994 as a partnership between the school district and the vo-tech school in Altoona, a small city spread over a series of hills and valleys in western central Pennsylvania. Dominated by light industry and medium-sized businesses, Altoona also maintains its connection to the railroad, which was a major factor in the local economy during the heyday of that earlier form of industrial technology.

What the Center Offers

The Altoona Area School District and the Vo-Tech School serve a community of both students bound for colleges and major universities and those who need advanced skills in order to compete for post-secondary school jobs offered by local and regional employers.

Regardless of their future academic and career paths, prior to the opening of the center, students learned to use computers through a comprehensive school district-wide technology program that has been in place for several years. The Center for Advanced Technologies was created to serve the full-range of school district and vo-tech students, while also providing a community education and economic development resource.

The Center for Advanced Technologies offers classes for students and the community (including parent-child and grandparent-grandchild programs), plus a popular series of summer camps and seminars for teachers. Perhaps most uniquely, the center also designs, develops and delivers multimedia training, sales promotion and public information packages to area businesses.

It is supported by a number of local and regional businesses, plus national partners such as Apple, Bell Atlantic and IBM. Higher education partners include Penn State University, St. Francis College and the National Science Foundation-supported Synthesis Coalition, headquartered at Cornell University.

Constructed and opened just seven months after its creation was announced, the center includes separate Apple and IBM classrooms, an extensive multimedia development lab, a T-1 connection to the Internet, a presentation center and staff offices. A PictureTel videoconferencing center was added in 1995.

The Altoona school board and staff envisioned a center that would expand the technological horizons of students and teachers, while also providing a tangible benefit for prospective business partners.

"We wanted to form true partnerships with businesses, based on delivering services, such as staff training and sales promotion packages they need in order to remain competitive in the marketplace," notes Dr. Frank Meloy, assistant superintendent of the district. "The projects we have completed thus far for eight partners also provide our staff and students with the unique experience of applying multimedia skills and advanced technologies to the business market."

Study Investigates Its Effects

What results have these investments of public and private resources delivered in Altoona? What lessons have been learned along the way? And how have attending classes, seminars and camps, or working with the center on projects, affected how students, teachers and business partners view new technologies?

In order to address these questions, a research study was developed to determine how each population (students, teachers and business partners) view multimedia, computers and other new technologies as a result of their involvement with the center. The methodology included face-to-face interviews with students enrolled in camps and the Pennsylvania Regional School of Excellence, and phone interviews with teachers and business partners. Those interviewed were randomly selected samples of each population.

Questions assessed prior computer knowledge, experiences and attitudes to help determine how specific tasks (such as lectures or business presentations) were previously handled. Up-front expectations were compared to after-the-fact results; levels of comfort with technology were also assessed. The primary goal was to find out if students, teachers and business partners benefited in tangible ways from their involvement with the center.

Fully 100% of students reported being satisfied with their experiences and with the comfort level they achieved by learning how to use computers, multimedia technologies and the Internet. Perhaps more importantly, the same universal response was received from every student surveyed regarding their intent to use and apply this newly acquired knowledge during the school year.

Effect on Students

One possible barrier was detected. Some respondents, including those from certain under-funded rural districts sending students to the Regional School program, reported concerns about the lack of similar equipment at their schools. A frequent concern of the students, for example, was the lack of Internet access once they left the center. Students said that learning how to use the Internet was the most popular aspect of their experience at the center. Students usually said this did not surprise them given their up-front expectations about this exciting new educational and entertainment avenue.

Students were also virtually universal in their interest in taking advantage of whatever technology they could access after leaving the center. Regardless of the level of technology available to students leaving the center, 90% reported they would use whatever was available in order to further apply what they had learned.

Where these experiences might take place provided some interesting information, particularly in light of the acceleration of computers into homes. When asked where students expected to apply the knowledge they gained operating multimedia hardware, software and peripherals, 42% said they expected this activity would take place in their own homes; 17% expected to apply their knowledge to equipment in the homes of friends or relatives, and only 17% expected this activity to occur at their school.

Students were virtually universal in their interest in taking advantage of whatever technology they could access after leaving the center.

Effect on Teachers

Teachers who attend center seminars range from novice to experienced computer users and select programs tailored to their skill levels and application interests. The most common result of attending a seminar was either the intent to enroll in additional programs and/or to develop computer-based presentations for classroom use. The latter result could be viewed most positively since only a handful of area teachers had taken such a step prior to the opening of the center.

Seminar attendees also reported being much more comfortable afterwards in their interactions with students involving new technology. This result could be particularly beneficial, in light of how facilities such as this can help teachers, educated prior to the onset of computers, bridge the technology gap between themselves and computer- literate students.

Effect on Businesses

Business partners reported a number of benefits. These were a result of projects ranging from notebook computer-based sales presentations with CD-ROM "leave behinds" for Delta Health Care to coronary care courses in EKG readings for nurses at Mercy Hospital ¬ both Altoona-based enterprises.

Barb Hagerich of Mercy Hospital reported being "extremely pleased" with the outcome of the project, particularly since they could "save money, time and human resources because nurses don't have to lose three days to training, but can learn from the program when it suits their individual schedules."

A public service interactive CD-ROM for first-, second- and third-graders, was developed by the center for Rust Evader Corp. The firm's marketing coordinator, Karen Fries, said the results were "extremely pleasing; particularly since otherwise we would have communicated this information to students with coloring books and stickers."

One of the more innovative projects was an interactive multimedia presentation developed to support an effort by a consortium of area government and business leaders to attract the World Cycling Championships to the community. Since the selection committee is a multi-national body, the center also translated the presentation and printed support materials into four languages.

"We couldn't have done this without the center," noted Debbie Prosser of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission, which sponsored the project. And the pay-back could be enormous, given the potential number of international participants, press and spectators involved in the event. In developing the project, the center highlighted the success the community has realized as the host site of a number of national bicycle races, including the most-recent trials to select the U.S. Olympic team.

Ultimate Assessment

Ultimately, perhaps the best way to determine the impact The Center for Advanced Technologies is having on the community is through the number of people who have participated in educational and business programs over its first 18 months.

During that time, 700 people have attended open house programs, 425 students attended summer camps and 250 students took semester-long classes. In addition to the eight completed projects, another six are already underway for businesses and four have been contracted by university partners. All this suggests results that will not only be meaningful, but long-term as well.

Andrew Bergstein teaches undergraduate courses at Penn State University and is a member of the faculty team developing a new integrated junior core curriculum for the University's Smeal College of Business, which will be supported by a variety of multimedia computer-based lectures and labs.E-Mail: axb35@email.psu.edu

For additional information contact:
The Center for Advanced Technologies
Altoona Area School District
1415 Sixth Ave.
Altoona, PA 16602
Phone: 814-946-8524
Fax: 814-946-8526
E-Mail: techcenter@altoona.k12.pa.us
Web: http://altoona.k12.pa.us/WWW/home.html

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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