High-tech teaching


HSE21 gives teachers and students 21st century tools

By Dan Domsic

A new chapter is closer to beginning for students in the Hamilton Southeastern Schools District, and it will all start with turning on their own iPad.

The Hamilton Southeastern School District is in the midst of getting teachers their own iPad as one phase of implementing HSE21, an initiative that focuses on teaching 21st century skills and placing a tablet into the hands of every student.

A technological leap for the school system, the project has been in the planning stages since fall of 2011. The pilot program could be implemented by next spring.

And that’s a leap that could help students close a skills gap – skills that employers are now expecting today’s worker to have, according to assistant supt. Dr. Beth Niedermeyer.

“I think the best reason to move forward (with HSE21) is because we’ve been hearing from businesses that students need 21st century learning skills to be successful, whether it’s in the business world or post-secondary education,” she said.

Learning curve

Every school day, about 20,000 students grab their book-filled backpacks and head to one of the HSE schools. Starting in 2014 and at four grade levels at a time, an iPad also will be in that backpack.

To test the program, a pilot team was assembled, bringing in teachers that applied and showed experience with inquiry learning and implementing technology.

Niedermeyer said the district was looking for teachers that already used innovative classroom activities that translated to real-world application

“We wanted projects that involved students thinking and having to do some research, but also doing some high-level analysis, critical thinking, creative thinking and problem solving because those are all the 21st century learning skills,” she said. “And so we wanted to see how they were already using that in their classrooms.”

Findings from the pilot program were presented to the school board in late February.

According to the Pilot Evaluation Report, a slight gain in academic achievement was seen in pilot classroom students.

Kelly Moore, an eighth-grade math and algebra teacher, reported that 89 out of her 151 students had increased grades after the pilot began. Of the 151 students, 49 stayed at the same grade level and 17 had a “slight” down-turn.

Moore said via email that grade increases ranged from a 3-percent bump to a 32-percent increase.

“Most students have increased by a letter grade (approximately 10 percent raise in grade),” she said.

Niedermeyer said it typically takes three to five years of study to gauge whether a new program or procedure is fully effective in that realm, but there is data to support a an increase in student engagement.

The evaluation report details, for example, an increase of book holds at Sand Creek Intermediate after the introduction of an iPad application called Destiny, as well as sixth-grade students using microscopes and the Internet to figure out what was turning their shoes orange after being out on the playground. It turns out a rust fungus was to blame for what was called “The Orange Shoe Mystery” by students, according to the report.

Looking beyond student engagement, development in 21st century skills is the final component.

Among the list of activities the report covers in this sector is a project that shows the steps of mitosis, a type of cellular division, by making a flipbook movie.

Niedermeyer said students all learn differently and no teaching method will be eliminated overnight.

“Kids, they’re going to make this transition, too,” she said. “It can be challenging for them as well, so we have to ease into this, I believe.”

Vetting the program

Engaging in new teaching tactics and putting a sophisticated device into the hands of thousands of students has its share of challenges.

Some of those challenges are caused by the nature of the pilot, as students don’t get to take iPads from class to class – unlike full implementation.

According to Niedermeyer, HSE Schools already has put procedures in place to deal with inappropriate usage.

A filtering system is in place to catch any inappropriate use by category, with another focus on how to teach students to alert adults if they accidentally navigate into inappropriate content.

In addition, teaching students to discern credible and accurate information amongst opinion and other content is part of the plan.

Niedermeyer said HSE cannot control every aspect of the initiative because it hampers the learning process for students.

“It’s not until the novelty wears off that they can start getting into the meaningful applications for instructional purposes, so I think the biggest challenge for teachers on the pilot team is setting parameters for students to know when they can do what and letting go of some of it because it’s part of the learning process,” she said. “Exploring and experimenting are key in an inquiry-processed approach.”