Chances are, K-12 administrators would benefit from actually being able to see and play with the state-of-the-art computer equipment on their wish lists before spending any money on these advanced technologies.

That’s what researchers and technology advocates at the National Education Association (NEA) are counting on, anyway, as they announce the opening of a new exhibit, “TECH: Making the Grade.”

The exhibit, which has been five years in the making at NEA, is focused on educating policymakers, parents, community activists, and K-12 leaders about the role of technology in education.

“TECH: Making the Grade” was conceived as a way to address the fact that nearly half of America’s classrooms still have little or no access to technology, and less than 3 percent of schools are effectively integrating technology into instruction, according to NEA figures.

Located in 2,500 square feet of the NEA building’s main floor in Washington, D.C., the “Making the Grade” exhibit serves as a public forum for engaging in and learning about the possibilities for technology in education, and is expected to last three years. Issues addressed by the exhibit include classroom use of technology, managing the business of schooling, improving school-to-home connections, and distance learning.

The exhibit’s designers hope to show the importance of making technology available to students and teachers as a basic resource. “This is an advocacy exhibit,” said Carolyn Breedlove, exhibit manager. “We want folks to see this, get excited about it, and go out and implement these types of things.”

The exhibition hall was funded through partnerships between NEA and several corporations and education organizations. Partners such as Apple, AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Compaq, Homework Hotline, NEC, and Prudential contributed time, equipment, and funding to create 16 interactive experiences designed to engage visitors in activities that help define the relationship between technology and students, educators, and schools.

All visitors are encouraged to try their hand at exhibits like “State of the States,” a computer set-up which allows users to find out how their state and others rate on the road to effective use of technology. With a single mouse click, the program gives statistics on state internet access, student to computer ratios, teacher requirements, and levels of integration.

The “Student TV” exhibit is a sophisticated demonstration of technology’s capabilities. It lets users create their own television news shows using video, sound, and actual broadcasting equipment.

Visitors also can check out exceptional personal web sites created by elementary school kids, play with a light-sensing robot created by high-schoolers, and test programs designed to demonstrate the proper use of filtering software.

But the exposition is not just all fun and games. Administrators and technology coordinators will benefit from getting first-hand experience using troubleshooting devices, online support, scheduling, classroom planning, professional development, and student progress-tracking software.

Computers also are set up for visitors to try out specific educational software and web sites to get an idea of the resources available to them.

Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is the “Good Connections” demonstration, which shows the technology that is available to create a learning link between the home and the classroom. The demonstration includes “classroom” and “home” components and features technology that opens up the lines of communication through voice messaging, homework hotlines, helplines, school and home web sites, eMail, and interactive cable programming.

“TECH: Making the Grade” also includes a distinctive message panel throughout the exhibit, designed to guide visitors through the displays and help them understand key concepts during and after each experience.

Exhibition staffers say it’s not necessary to make the pilgrimage to Washington to get a feel for the technology demonstrated in “Making the Grade.” Most of the exhibit’s audio and visual components are available at the project’s official web site (see link below).

If you’re interested in visiting the exhibit first-hand, call the NEA at (202) 822-7360 to make group reservations. The optimal group size is about 50 people, but staffers are more than willing to accommodate larger or smaller groups. Exhibit hours are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but private receptions can be arranged.