THE Journal's 2008 Innovators :: 4

Mark Rhoades and Yvonne Johnson
Lewis and Clark High School (WA)

Lewis and Clark High School

Lewis and Clark High
students help launch
TEConnections at a
lower-income high school.

Shortly after Mark Rhoades joined Lewis and Clark High School in 2004 as a computer teacher, Yvonne Johnson, a career and technical education support specialist, approached him with the idea of turning the school's surplus computers taking up space in a warehouse into a service project for students and the community. Rhoades was interested: "I was looking to give my students something hands-on to do."

The two of them took the idea to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, which could funnel the machines to the low-income families that most needed them. Four years later, TEConnections, the after-school program that grew out of Rhoades and Johnson's collaboration, has distributed computers to 1,000 families in the eastern Washington area. The only stipulations are that the recipients must have a K-12 student at home and own no other computer.

"A lot of statistical evidence supports the idea that if you can get technology into the hands of students and let them access it at home, you can improve their performance in school," says Rhoades.

Mark Roades

Rhoades (front right) with his
students after they were
honored locally as Best
Community Service Group.

His own students benefit by fixing the equipment and delivering it. To prepare the computers for distribution, students learn how to wipe hard drives, blow out dust, add RAM, and test the system and components. "Once the hardware is determined to be in good working condition, they build one system from scratch and make a clone image of that system," says Rhoades. "Then they transfer that image to other machines."

Families receive a computer running Microsoft's Windows XP and Office 2003 and peripherals. The program is funded by a three-year grant from the federal initiative Learn and Serve America. According to Rhoades, the cost to the program is about $25 per system delivered. Participating families can receive discounted internet service from a local provider.

Every third Wednesday during the school year, a group of 15 of the recipient families meet at Lewis and Clark for one-on-one training given by the same students who refurbish the machines. Lessons cover basics such as how to set up the computer and save a file. "There's a lot of interaction," Rhoades says. "Students who are perhaps not as outspoken have learned how to communicate with people. Once they start getting their self-confidence and self-esteem, they start improving performance in other academic areas. By being involved, they start to see that a career in IT might be something that's good for them."

Celine Azoulay-Lewin
New York City Department of Education

Celine Azoulay-LewinCeline Azoulay-Lewin, the New York City Department of Education's borough instructional technology director for Staten Island/South Brooklyn, remembers her aha! moment during her district's deployment of gaming environments for teaching math.

"There was one student who was a good kid," she says. "Just quiet. Didn't go above and beyond his schoolwork." But playing the math games inspired him. Azoulay-Lewin says he created a playbook in which he'd write out math concepts and formulas so he could understand them better, just so he could gain more points and advance in the game.

That enthusiasm for Tabula Digita's pre-algebra and algebra games, Evolver and Dimenxian, respectively, is common at the four schools where the district introduced them in September 2006, after a long search by Azoulay-Lewin for something new to try in middle school math classes "that nobody else was doing," she says. She waited through several iterations of the game before feeling they merited piloting.

Celine Azoulay-Lewin

Students use gaming to learn
pre-algebra and algebra.

Eleven middle school math teachers spent a day learning the concepts of the games and how to incorporate them into a lesson, then played a couple of "missions." Teachers now use the games for instructional purposes two or three days a week.

Evolver and Dimenxian are modeled after commercial products like Microsoft's Halo. The two math games have similar characteristics and features: Each player has an avatar charged with a mission-- say, to find out why an island-based government research facility has been closed and quarantined. As the avatar moves through layers of the game, music pounding away, equations come up that need solving. Correct answers and game prowess add to the player's points. There are also timed missions, where players, for instance, have to convert fractions to decimals and decimals to percents.

"Principals were awed at not only the level of student engagement, but also the motivation of students to want to learn math," Azoulay-Lewin says. By January 2007, three additional schools had been added to the pilot, and by the following September the deployment went citywide among middle schools.

Celine Azoulay-Lewin

Azoulay-Lewin (center) and
her staff at the New York
City Department of Education.

The key to playing the math games successfully is knowing the subject matter. Correctly guessing the answer to a problem is worth far less than demonstrating you can work out the proper formula. "The point spread is so varied that if you're guessing, you're going to lose," Azoulay-Lewin says.

The students not only play in class, but they can install a home version and take part in online competitions against their peers. Tabula Digita has sponsored competitions that bring together students from multiple cities or from within the same district. In fact, says Azoulay-Lewin, the competition that took place last December among schools around New York City was the culminating moment for her in the success of the project. The first, second, and third prizes went to teams from her schools.

Vincent Davila
Jesuit High School (FL)

Vincent DavilaAs the assistant director of technology at Tampa's Jesuit High School, Vincent Davila is no stranger to lightning. After all, according to the National Weather Service, the corridor running from Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Mexico to Titusville on the eastern side of Florda sees more lightning than anywhere else in the country.

Still, it took a support technician's replacing of a motherboard in a new Siemens MXL fire alarm system to show Davila it was a good thing that the school was upgrading to fiber optics from copper. The tech had just replaced the board, which had been fried in a lightning strike, and was in the process of testing the new board when a second lightning strike took it out.

"That happened probably about 15 or 20 minutes after the board was installed," says Davila.

Jesuit High has 12 separate buildings. Originally, the phones, fire alarm system, public address system, and security and energy management systems all ran on copper wire laid in a fourpipe conduit system underground in a star formation. When lightning struck anywhere on campus, inevitably some piece of equipment running on the copper would stop working. It didn't help that the school was built on a wetlands-like pasture. "The groundwater is very saturated," says Davila. "Sixty-five to 70 percent of the year, those [lines] are actually underwater."

About eight years ago, Tampa-based technology firm Mission Critical Solutions, which is run by a Jesuit High alumnus, Gilbert Gonzalez, helped the school fund and install 62.5-micron fiber optics through the conduit system. The technology and facilities teams built a network backbone on half of that and converted the energy management system to it as well. "The good thing about moving everything to fiber optics," says Davila, "is that since it's glass, lightning strikes don't do anything to it."

Eventually, as part of a decision to deploy IP-based video capability on campus, the fiber network was expanded with 50-micron fiber. The school upgraded its network switches to accommodate the video and moved its network to the new fiber. The fire alarm system, whose hardware had been replaced by Siemens the year earlier, was put on the older 62.5-micron fiber. That required working with the vendor to create converter boxes that would allow the alarms to work on fiber instead of copper.

"It's amazing how many things go over fiber," Davila says, debunking the myth that you need to replace your equipment to become IP-based. For example, fiber converters inside each school building convert the fire alarm's signal from copper to fiber and back again as it runs between the buildings.

The next project is to implement a voice over IP phone system. Once that's in-- probably next summer-- the school will be able to rid itself of its last remaining bit of underground copper wire. "Moving to fiber optics is not as scary as it might have been in the past," Davila says, pointing out that with equipment such as the fire alarm, bell, and PA systems, it's certainly less frightening than the life-threatening reality of a lightning strike.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.