New take: Focus on tech

Chesapeake courses aimed at improving performance

October 03, 2006|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,sun reporter

Monica Friend studied the computer screen, as a butterfly she had drawn took flight. Nearby, Jody Oliver watched a video he had produced, and John Fink manned the help desk, ready to assist in the event of a computer crisis.

Monica, Jody and John aren't employees of a high-tech corporation. They're students at Chesapeake High School, where county officials are trying to boost student performance by incorporating technology in a range of classes.

"I just fell in love with using computers for art," said Jody, a 16-year-old senior with a fringe of blond hair that falls across his eyes.

Baltimore County schools officials are hoping that technology will grab the attention of more students at Chesapeake. Last month, the Essex high school became the eighth school in the county to be designated a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Academy.

A grant from the state and partnerships with local colleges and businesses will enable Chesapeake, as well as nearby middle and elementary schools, to buy more computers and integrate technology in all aspects of the curriculum, county schools officials say.

Chesapeake was chosen for the program because the school had not performed well on state tests. Last year, more than 74 percent of students failed to make a satisfactory score on the state reading test, and more than 92 percent failed to make a satisfactory score on the state math test.

"We wanted to look at a community where we could begin to change the expectations," H.B. Lantz, the assistant county schools superintendent for science, technology, engineering and math, said of the decision to start the program at Chesapeake. "We wanted to create a culture of going on to college."

College was on Monica's mind recently as she used graphic design software to create works for her art school portfolio. The 16-year-old senior tweaked a short movie that she had created by drawing on a computerized pad, animating her sketch and adding music.

In the final version, a red butterfly flutters across the screen and lands on top of the letter "i" in Monica's name as the words "Film and Production" appear.

"It's a dream as an instructor to be able to use the latest computer programs with them," said Bruno Baran, who teaches the televideo class. "Prior to this, students didn't know what was out there after college, and now it's here in the high school."

Administrators and teachers at Chesapeake have already adjusted the curriculum to emphasize technology before they receive the one-time STEM grant of $1.3 million.

Students in each of the school's four academic tracks - business, leadership, arts and communication, and science and technology - are required to use computers in their classes. Business students type data into spreadsheets. Members of the new Advanced Placement environmental-science class use a computer program to simulate plates shifting under the earth's surface.

Chesapeake has five computer labs, including a multimedia lab with radio and television studios. Teachers can wheel a mobile computer lab - a cart with 16 laptops - into their classrooms. Wireless Internet is available throughout the building.

"We see this year as sort of laying the groundwork for what is to come," said Principal Maria L. Lowry, speaking in the school's new videoconferencing room. Although only staff members have used the videoconferencing technology, Lowry hopes that students will one day use it to communicate with people in other countries.

Students who enter Chesapeake as freshmen next year will make up the school's first STEM class, Lantz said. The school will lend them electronic devices, much as it lends textbooks to students now. Students will receive graphing calculators as freshmen and either laptops or personal data assistants as sophomores, Lantz said.

The curriculum will also change. Students will be required to pass four math classes to graduate, one more than the current county requirement. Pre-engineering, information technology, and mathematics tracks will be offered. Seniors will be required to complete a research project to graduate.

School officials plan to enhance science and technology programs at nearby schools as well. Two middle schools that feed students to Chesapeake - Deep Creek and Middle River - as well as the seven elementary schools that feed them will become STEM academies, Lantz said.

The system hopes to one day expand the STEM program to all county schools, he said.

"I'm not going to say that in the past we have always taught science in an engaging way. We haven't," Lantz said. "But with this program, if I can truly hook students, if I can engage them in a task that they're invested in, they're going to learn."

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