We’ve long heard that technology will revolutionize education, dissolving barriers created by distance, inequity of opportunity, and lack of resources, and bringing the world to every student.
And while it’s true that many classrooms across Colorado have access to computers, tablets, smartphones, and fast internet connections, the promised revolution has been slow to materialize. Many schools struggle to use technology effectively, for a host of reasons.
This is especially true in some small, rural districts, where a lack of access to expertise and cutting-edge technology can stymy efforts to provide the education needed for the innovation economy.
But educators at the STEM School Highlands Ranch, a high-performing, 1,800-student, public charter school in Douglas County, are out to prove that none of these barriers are insurmountable.
In fact, technology, while a wonderful tool, is just that – a tool. More important by far is connecting educators across geographical, cultural, and international boundaries who are “innovators with passion and purpose,” said Stephanie Mendrala, an innovation coach at STEM School.
STEM School is working with industry partners, a committed philanthropic funder, and the tiny Arickaree school district on the Eastern Plains to export its highly effective, hands-on “problem-based learning” approach to Arickaree’s 100 students.
Shane Walkinshaw, Arickaree’s superintendent, is all in.
“We have a lack of opportunity out here, in terms of what we are able to provide,” Walkinshaw said of his one-school district, located 115 miles east of Denver. “I looked at different STEM options (over the years), how-to manuals, and none of it seemed like anything that was going to work here.”
Last spring, Walkinshaw connected with the STEM School’s Gregg Cannady, a music educator who now leads the school’s collaboration and concept development efforts. Cannady has an evangelist’s passion for what he terms “synchronous online education.”
Cannady also happens to be an Arickaree High School graduate, so he was eager to jump in and forge a partnership between the STEM School and his alma mater.
In May, the two schools piloted a few joint online music, science, and social studies lessons, co-taught by teachers from each school. The feedback was universally positive, so during the latter part of the fall 2017 semester, the schools ramped up their collaboration.
Polycom, a San Jose, Calif. based company that provides video and teleconferencing equipment and services, has donated state-of-the-art video conferencing equipment to the STEM School, including interactive smartboards and 360-degree cameras. The equipment resides in the SYNK, an asymmetrical, windowless room in the school that is overseen by the hyperkinetic Cannady. The SYNK opened in October.
Zoom, a videoconferencing company, also donated accounts to the STEM School to make ongoing collaborations possible and affordable.
Aricakree also received a Polycom camera to mount in a classroom, and Walkinshaw hopes smartboards may be coming his way soon.
Watching a problem-based learning lesson taught interactively across two very different schools offers a glimpse of what could be a bright future for education.
One recent afternoon, STEM School history teacher Owen Cegielski and Arickaree social studies teacher Jesse Feather brought their classes together via video link to work on designing Roman aqueducts out of Solo cups, yardsticks, poster board, cling-wrap, and packing tape.
Cegielski’s 20-plus students sat in groups in the SYNK, while Feather’s three students, all boys, sat in a row facing the camera in the Arickaree’s more traditionally arranged classroom.
“I appreciate you guys’ bravery in doing this,” Cegielski of STEM High said to Feather and his students. “It’s one of our very first experiments in using the SYNK.”
“Mr. Cegielski and I have been working on this, and he’s done some things that even as a social studies teacher scare me a little bit,” Feather said, eliciting raucous laughter from the STEM School students. Today’s lesson, Feather explained, was to investigate the impact of major scientific and technological innovation.
After discussing in small groups the major components of classical architecture, including those still in use today, the two schools launched into a 40-minute aqueduct building challenge.
“The kicker is you have to make the top of it waterproof and able to transport water,” Cegielski said. “The end result is who can build the longest working aqueduct.”
While the Arickaree students had remained mostly silent during the question-and answer portion of the lessons, when the hands-on work began, they dove in with gusto.
After 40 minutes, Cegielski and Feather brought the two classes back together.
“How did your aqueduct function?” Cegielski asked Feather.
“Theirs actually carried water without a leak its entire length,” Feather replied.
The STEM School students looked at the cameras and applauded their rural peers. One of three STEM School groups also crafted a leak-proof aqueduct, two meters long.
The collaboration between the STEM School and Arickaree will extend beyond shared classes. Cannady is also helping Walkinshaw forge connections with companies like Polycom that can supply technology, as well as local industries that can offer internships to rural students.
Cannady believes that synchronous online education isn’t just the future of education, but the present as well. In September, he connected with a rural school in the Mexican state of Nayarit. A local guitar teacher there taught traditional songs to local students as well music students in Highlands Ranch.
“Synchronous online learning allows teachers anywhere to connect with students everywhere,” he said.
The STEM School’s efforts have caught the attention of a Denver-based foundation that focuses on providing educational opportunities to rural students.
Tarika Cefkin, executive director of the Nathan Yip Foundation, said the STEM School received a $5,000 grant last April to begin exploring rural collaborations. And in Arickaree, the Nathan Yip Foundation is exploring providing some funding “to update their tech and maybe getting them a 3D printer and other makerspace tools so that their students, too, can have hands-on experiences and tinker with the same tools and toys as their STEM School peers.”
Ultimately, Cefkin said, the foundation would like to see rural schools collaborating with one another using synchronous online learning, without having to rely on an urban or suburban go-between.
“I guess you can think of it as that whole “teach a man to fish” proverb,” she said.