High Schools : Arkansas : Go East, Young People

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IN THE SPRING OF 2002, Arkansas' MonticelloSchool District wanted to change the climate in its classrooms,to move away from the conventional teacher-centered approachand make students the hub of activity. The district wanted somethingthat would draw on technology as a learning tool, and tofind some way for students to connect better with the community.In short, Monticello was searching for a new path, and ratherthan following the historical directive to go west, it lookedeast-- or rather EAST, an acronym coined by the group of highschool students who years earlier piloted the Environmental andSpatial Technology program.

Convinced that this was the vehicle to lead it out of the old century and into the new, Monticello adopted EAST the following year. The program places students in a collaborative work environment with educators and city officials and equips them with some of the most sophisticated technology tools available, which they put to work addressing a multitude of problems occurring in the school and neighboring community.

This will mark the third straight summer that high school studentsin the EAST program will help teach technology-basedproblem solving to kids in grades 3, 4, and 5.

Web page creation, animation, graphic design, digital storytelling, podcasting, video editing, computer-aided design, geographic information systems, and global positioning systems-- EAST students work with all of these technologies. The program teaches students' technology skills, but its real purpose is to help them develop 21st-century skills such as teamwork, problem solving, and communication, which grow as the students work through various projects.

While EAST has been established in the district's middle school and is now being tried in the elementary school, the most advanced projects are being done by students at Monticello High School. As one example of the way EAST participants become active problem solvers in their community, Monticello High students, demonstrating their GPS skills, worked with local police to map emergency evacuation routes. They also created a website that maps the graves at Arkansas Veterans Cemetery so site visitors can locate deceased family and friends.

Colleges across Arkansas are starting to specifically recruit students who are accomplished problem solvers. Some schools in the state set aside scholarships for students who have been through the EAST program. Businesses, too, are getting behind the program, donating funds to create their own scholarships for EAST participants.

Since the pilot project in 1996, EAST has continued to expand across Arkansas, picking up 15 to 20 new districts each year. Nationally, the program is being used by 15,000 students across eight states and growing as fast as the current infrastructure will support. The initiative is also working to introduce elementary-age students to the educational applications of new technologies. This year will mark the third straight summer that high school students in the EAST program will help teach technology-based problem solving to kids in grades 3, 4, and 5. Three hundred students attended the first two summer tech camps.

TO VIEW PROJECTS

worked on by students in MonticelloHigh School’s EAST program, go here. Click on "Project Page."

By engaging students directly in their education, the EAST program serves as an ideal for how the 21st-century classroom is meant to operate, letting students lead their academic activities and turning the teacher into more of a guide. In this model, the classroom resembles a modern corporate workspace, where technology links people and resources in order to complete tasks and solve problems. The EAST program has done what Monticello School District hoped it would: changed school culture, connected students with the real world, and helped students see and pursue new opportunities for learning.

Tommy Tyler is assistant superintendent of Monticello SchoolDistrict.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.

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