ExplorNet Empowers Mississippi Students Through Technology Education
When Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove said he wanted an Internet-accessible computer in every public elementary and secondary classroom in the state by the end of 2002, some wondered how he could achieve that goal. The answer was simple: go to the students. And that is just what the state did, as more than 400 Mississippi students came together last year to build nearly 6,000 computers for the state's younger children.
A series of "Computer Blitz Build" events were held throughout 2002, where students spent an entire day assembling and packaging computers to be sent to various schools throughout the state. By the beginning of December, they had helped the governor reach his goal - 32,354 public classrooms each had an Internet-accessible computer. This made Mississippi the first state to ever accomplish this feat, according to the National Governors Association.
The participating students were enrolled in the ExplorNet Computer Engineering program, which is active in about 40 Mississippi schools. The program is a hands-on class in which students participate as part of their regular curriculum. Its goal is to teach students how to assemble new computers from scratch, as well as how to upgrade donated or used computers by replacing parts with new components. Each student is taught everything about the machines, including how to build, troubleshoot, operate and repair them.
"It was a really exciting event, and for the governor to have that vision for his state and to actually do it was remarkable," says David Boliek, CEO of ExplorNet. "It says a lot about him and the people of Mississippi who helped influence the future of their state."
The Governor's Task Force for Classroom Technology was created last year with the sole purpose of placing an Internet-accessible computer in every public elementary and secondary classroom in the state. The governor's aspiration was to achieve two objectives: to enhance the educational experience for Mississippi students and help bridge the digital divide for all Mississippians.
"Education is my No. 1 priority and the foundation to building a strong community and a strong state," says Musgrove. "Providing the world's resources to our children makes learning better. Now any teacher or child in Mississippi public schools has every resource at his or her fingertips. This initiative improves the opportunities to learn for our children, and provides a stronger foundation for our children as they move into college or into a job."
In addition to working with ExplorNet on the Blitz Builds, the governor's office requested vendors to offer aggressive discounts on technology, creative pricing arrangements, and value-added products and services to help make his dream a reality.
Everyone who participated in the project had nothing but praise for it. Student volunteer Cedrick James, from Humphreys High School, was glad his efforts at the December Blitz Build would assist younger children. "[ExplorNet] is a great project because it teaches us about computers and lets other students use computers to do their schoolwork at the same time," he says. James' school was one of 17 that participated in the December Blitz Build held at Jackson State University. Other Blitz Builds were held around the state earlier in the year.
"It's great that the students are involved with this statewide project. It certainly helps their ego and self-esteem," says Vickie Cox, the computer engineering teacher at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Miss. "They also got to see how other students from across the state do their work." Cox brought several of her students to the December Blitz Build.
Under ExplorNet's direction, the Governor's Classroom Technology Task Force, the Mississippi Development Authority, the Mississippi Department of Education, the Maddox Foundation and the John N. Palmer Foundation worked together to make the Blitz Builds possible. "It was a tremendous honor and privilege to work with the governor and people of Mississippi on this project," says ExplorNet's Boliek. "It completely encompassed the purpose of ExplorNet."
ExplorNet is a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding and improving the use of educational technology at the lowest possible cost. It has two primary focuses:
1. Workforce development - a series of courses that helps prepare teachers for quality teaching and learning.
2. Blending educational strategies with technology.
In addition, ExplorNet partners students, teachers and information technology volunteers to bring the latest computers to schools that may be behind the technology curve due to finances or lack of leadership.
"Our mission is to empower people through technology in education," Boliek says. "Education is the great leveler between social classes. There are people in rural communities who simply don't have access to technology, and we want to change that."
Boliek founded ExplorNet in 1996 while he was a TV reporter for the local ABC station in North Carolina. He became aware of a technology program that used 25,000 volunteers to wire the same number of classrooms, saving about $47 million. Boliek was so impressed by what the group had accomplished that he set out to learn how he could contribute to such an effort. The following year, he was working on the ExplorNet program full time.
ExplorNet programs are now held in five states: Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota and South Dakota. These states were given federal funding specifically for the improvement of technology in rural communities. In the near future, ExplorNet plans to focus on teacher development and helping prepare educators to better serve their students in terms of educational technology. "We want to focus on quality teaching and learning, and strategies on how to accomplish quality teaching successfully," says Boliek.
- Shay K. McKinley
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.