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21st Century Curriculum | Features

A Global Technology Initiative

When Charles County Public Schools’ James E. Richmond Science Center opens its doors in August 2014, students will learn in a digital, 180-seat classroom equipped with a Science On a Sphere® interactive globe that creates a part-planetarium, part-IMAX theatre learning atmosphere. Invented by Dr. Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald, director of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, SOS is a large visualization system that uses computers and video projectors to display animated data onto the outside of a sphere. Using an animated globe, SOS can show dynamic images of the atmosphere, oceans, and land of a planet.

Leaders at CCPS, a 26,000-student district located in La Plata, MD, initially learned about SOS six years ago through their established partnership with Space Foundation. All they lacked was the budget to buy it and a place to put it. Monique Wilson, director of the science center, said, “We saw how the technology could impact instruction. We were awed by it. But at the time an SOS purchase—particularly when we didn’t have a building to put it in—wasn’t an option.”

In 2009, Wilson and her team began writing grants that could be used to pay for a more affordable version of the original SOS. Developed by Global Imagination, the Magic Planet® video globes feature digital displays with sphere-shaped screens designed to engage students in STEM learning.

“These products had the same ‘wow’ factor as SOS, but at a more reasonable cost,” said Wilson, who spent two years getting the necessary grants to acquire an initial set of globes. The following year, with additional grant funds, the district bought five more. “Wow” factor aside, the globes helped CCPS work toward its ongoing goal of infusing more 21st century technology into its STEM classrooms.

“We wanted to make the subject matter both relevant and exciting,” Wilson said, “knowing that STEM exposure for all students would directly impact student achievement, especially in our science scores.” The classroom technology has also helped CCPS close the digital divide. “We have a large minority population, but we learned that those students weren’t being reflected in STEM-related opportunities,” Wilson pointed out. “In fact, over the years, we found that it was predominantly [Caucasian] males that were able to participate.”

To help put technical coursework into the hands of more students, the district’s superintendent at the time headed up an initiative to change CCPS’s course content. Key changes included the introduction of a “Gateway to Technology” program at the middle-school level and a more intensive focus on subjects like biomedical engineering in high school.

As part of that initiative, CCPS also began to concentrate on educating students who weren’t necessarily tracked for a four-year college degree, but who might be interested in participating in careers that support STEM professionals. In the district’s immediate geographical region, for example, military bases are always searching for “homegrown” graduates to fill positions. “We wanted students to have exposure and access to these opportunities,” said Wilson, “should they want to achieve a technical degree or other path to such careers.”

Rolling Out the Globes

Teachers in nearly all grade levels have used the videos globes. Elementary teachers use them for basic science lessons, while high school instructors use them to teach earth/space science and human geography classes.

“It’s a great substitute for the ‘flat map’ of the stagnant standard-issued globe,” said Wilson. The Magic Planet is also used in pre-K classes, where three-year-old pupils use the globes to learn about seasons and the solar system. “They can learn what the sun looks like,” said Wilson, “and examine it closely without getting their eyes hurt.”

Of course, when brand new technology is rolled out across various classrooms the issue of professional development rears its head. Wilson said teachers required one-time training to learn the video globe technology, as well as additional yearly refresher courses that are presented as professional development sessions.  Using the “train the trainer” model, the district selected a core group of master teachers who learned the ropes by working with the vendor’s engineers.

After the first training session, that core group worked with Wilson and her team to troubleshoot any problems and write up lessons that incorporated the globes into classroom lectures and lab stations. “We perpetuate the train the trainer model to keep the [digital globes] relevant,” said Wilson.

From there, the “trainers” worked in smaller groups to teach their cohorts how to use the technology in class. In 2012, the district began running smaller training sessions for new users, and last year it took a “full group approach” and offered one day of training to about 20 teachers who needed nuts-and-bolts, basic training on the systems.

Measuring the Results

Wilson says the digital globes have helped the district improve its students’ science scores. “The increases have been incremental, but we are beginning to see a shift,” said Wilson, adding that students’ excitement over the classroom technology and teachers’ willingness to adopt and use it have both been extremely encouraging.

“The results have been measured in test scores increasing ever so slightly,” said Wilson, “and student interest in STEM skyrocketing.” She expects that enthusiasm to grow further when the new science center opens for the 2014-15 school year. Wilson said, “Magic Planet use will be a prerequisite for classroom teachers before they take their classes to visit the science center and interact with the spheres.”

To K-12 schools and districts looking to infuse similar technology into their classrooms, Wilson said the best first step would be to get multiple individuals and departments involved in the initiative. “Make sure more than one person holds the vision for the technology implementation,” said Wilson, who points to instructional leaders, principals, and teachers as some of the best team members for such projects. “Get that buy-in early in the process, start small, and always have a clear vision of what the use of the technology should look like in the classroom.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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