Best Practice: Challenger centers motivate students to excel in science

The Colorado Springs, Colo., eighth-graders stared intently at their manuals, confident they would complete their mission. But this was no ordinary school assignment: During a recent visit to the city’s new Challenger Learning Center, the students used their math, science, and communications skills to successfully probe a comet.

Programs at the center are designed to increase student interest in science, engineering, and technology. The center targets middle school students because they are at the age where they begin to choose their career focus.

The students—half of them boys and half girls—were the first to try the “Rendezvous with Comet Encke” space mission at the center.

Organizers said the program motivates students to excel in science. Girls, particularly those of middle school age, often start disconnecting from math and science, which also prompted organizers to target the age group.

Nancy Rauenzahn, one of two teachers working as a commander at the center, said few programs are this successful at engaging both genders.

“If you hook the girls, the boys are there automatically,” Rauenzahn said. “The program works elaborately on communication skills for all students.”

The educational intent of the program seems to be rubbing off. “I don’t really like science usually, but this is really interesting,” said Mindy Quintana, 13. “I like how it feels so realistic.”

Students work together in jobs such as communications, navigation, and life support during a simulated Space Shuttle mission. Crises often arise that require the teams to work quickly and communicate solutions or be forced to abort the mission.

Quintana, who was in charge of radioing messages for her group, said she would be much more interested in science if she could do activities like those at the Challenger Learning Center more often.

The center has rooms that look like the Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the International Space Station. There is also a briefing room for students.

Colorado Springs is home to one of 45 Challenger Learning Centers in the United States.

Nearly $2 million in grants, donations, and some state funds helped build the center, which is next to Challenger Middle School. The center is open to students throughout the West, but most mission sessions are booked for this year.

Links:

Challenger Center for Space Science Education
http://www.challenger.org

Challenger Learning Center of Colorado Springs
http://www.clccs.org

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Free-speech groups sound off on CIPA in schools

With a victory in the public libraries behind them, anti-censorship activists joined with parents, teachers, and students Sept. 18 in a move to beat back the imposition of federally mandated web filters in schools.

The nationwide “speak-out” served as a rallying point for anti-censorship organizations—including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and National Coalition Against Censorship—to sound off against the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The law that requires all schools receiving eRate funds to use “technology protection measures” to keep kids from accessing inappropriate material online.

Although the event, which took place simultaneously in Boston, New York, and San Francisco, did not introduce any formal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of CIPA in schools, it did encourage a national student letter-writing campaign, which organizers hope will increase public scrutiny of the act and pressure lawmakers to adopt new policies for safe, effective internet use in schools.

CIPA detractors claim that school-imposed web filters inadvertently block access to educational sites, making it virtually impossible for teachers to use professional discretion when deciding what content to allow in the classroom.

Marjorie Heins, director of the Free Expression Policy Project, called the law “outrageous,” saying it’s inconceivable the federal government should ask teachers to give up their professional discretion in favor of filtering products designed by companies that are far removed from students and their instructional needs.

Several educators agreed with Heins. These needs, they said, go unfulfilled because web filters often operate by singling out certain words—including “rape,” “terrorism,” and “anarchy”—which might or might not be used in an inappropriate fashion.

For instance, in one New York City school, students were blocked from accessing information related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because the filtering system there inadvertently identified the word “terrorism” as dangerous and offensive to students, said John Elfrank, a social studies teacher with the city’s school system.

David Burt, public relations manager for N2H2 Inc., which makes one of the most widely used filtering products in schools, said a lot more goes into choosing blocked sites than simply red-flagging certain words for detection. Burt said N2H2’s filter does not block solely on the recognition of a potentially harmful word, but rather looks for such indicators as adult warnings, pornographic content, and specific tags in web addresses commonly associated with lewd or inappropriate content. Like most other filtering companies, N2H2 also uses human reviewers to check red-flagged sites to make sure they are not blocked inadvertently.

But critics of filtering software argue there is no way a team of employees can keep up with the thousands of new sites on the internet each day, and mistakes are inevitable. The Free Expression Policy Project has compiled a list of hundreds of inappropriately blocked sites as reported by educators and has included this list in “Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report,” which is available on the organization’s web site.

Another organization, Peacefire.org, established in 1996 to protect the free-speech rights of children under 18 on the internet, highlights a new inadvertently blocked site every week. One example: the 19th-century classic Jane Eyre, which Peacefire claims is blocked by Symantec Corp.’s I-Gear filter when accessed through the archives at Carnegie Mellon University.

Despite the frustrations of some, many educators contend filters are necessary for keeping children safe online while at school.

“I definitely think filtering is necessary,” said Carlos de Sousa, network manager for the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill, Mass. “I deal with kids every day, and I know that the temptation is great to seek out that kind of stuff. We’re not talking lace and lingerie, either, but real, hard-core pornography.”

Links:

“Internet Filters: A Public Policy Report”
http://www.fepproject.org/issues/filteringreports.html#BESS

New York City Department of Education
http://www.nycenet.edu

Peacefire.org
http://www.peacefire.org

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$20 billion ed-tech project awaits action by Congress

Legislation that would funnel an estimated $20 billion in revenue toward educational technology research and development (R&D) was languishing in committee in both the Senate and the House at press time, and supporters of the measure say it’s doubtful that Congress will take up either bill before the end of the current legislative session.

The Senate’s version of the legislation, called the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust Act (S. 2603), proposes creating a billion-dollar government agency—on par with the National Institutes of Health or National Science Academies—to enhance federal ed-tech programs.

Funding would come from auctioning the publicly owned electromagnetic spectrum that carries television, radio, telephone, and other signals. Portions of this spectrum are still being allocated and reallocated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the highest-bidding companies, government agencies, and others.

The bill’s sponsors, Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and James Jeffords, I-Vt., estimate that auctioning the remaining spectrum could yield more than $20 billion in revenue for the United States Treasury.

Normally these proceeds go into the treasury as general funds, but the lawmakers propose they be used to transform learning in the 21st century.

Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced a similar version of the bill in the House of Representatives, called the Wireless Technology Investment and Digital Dividends Act of 2002 (H.R. 4641).

Former NBC News President Larry K. Grossman and former FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow came up with the idea for the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust last year and have been promoting it through their Digital Promise Project web site.

The premise is that the educational potential of the internet and other technologies have barely been tapped—and while many institutions serve as repositories of knowledge, information, and educational resources and programs, they are fragmented and uncoordinated.

The project’s organizers envision developing the internet, virtual reality, gaming, and software applications in ways that truly transform learning.

“The internet is at that very infantile stage. It’s not even crawling yet,” said Anne Murphy, director of the Digital Promise Project. “We think there needs to be a drive and focus on getting technology to support learning.”

One of the goals is to digitize content from museums, libraries, and universities and make it available online to revolutionize learning.

“What research is being done is great, but it’s not being done in a concerted way and there’s no cohesive plan,” Murphy said.

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) was one of the first educational organizations to endorse the project.

“We think it’s important that there be some investment in research and development as well as online content,” said Keith Krueger, CoSN’s executive director. “We think there is a lack of R&D on educational technology in general.”

The eRate has provided schools with technology infrastructure, and schools are adding increased bandwidth that makes interactive content possible. “What good is bandwidth without good applications and content?” asked Krueger, who added that he’s not surprised the legislation appears stalled this session.

“It’s been moving faster than most would have predicted, given the size of the request,” he said. “It took several years [for the eRate to pass]. … I think this is laying the groundwork for the next [session of] Congress.”

Some educators applaud the legislation’s goals. “We need to anticipate the future,” said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania. “I am impressed with the potential.”

Others question how useful the measure would be to educators, considering the value of what already exists.

“I think that the bill is on the right track, as there is a need for research and a comprehensive [strategy],” said Marc B. Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “However, this is not a $20 billion project. Much of the work is already done and just needs to be codified and translated into useable strategies for schols.”

Links:

Digital Opportunity Investment Trust
http://www.digitalpromise.org

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

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PC giant Dell hopes to make mark selling printers

Dell Computer Corp. in September made official what the company has alluded to for months: The personal computer giant is getting into the printer business.

Round Rock, Texas-based Dell announced an agreement with Kentucky-based printer manufacturer Lexmark International Inc. to produce Dell inkjet and laser printers and cartridges that will be sold directly to customers.

Dell will offer special packages pushing Lexmark printers during the holiday shopping season. Dell-brand printers will be sold in the first half of next year, said Dell spokesman Jess Blackburn. The companies did not disclose terms or give specific product descriptions.

Dell’s step into the printer market comes two months after leading printer maker Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) severed a partnership with the company, saying it believed Dell was planning to start selling its own printers.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP had let Dell buy printers directly from HP and resell them to Dell PC customers. Dell plans to continue similar agreements with Lexmark, Epson America Corp., Xerox Corp., Brother Industries Ltd., and Canon Inc.

But under that system, Dell misses out on recurring sales of ink refills, which ensure highly profitable and steady revenues for years.

“Dell can very efficiently assemble and distribute printers themselves. The key to the imaging business is not the printer; it’s the cartridges,” said Barry Jaruzelski, a management consultant with Booz Allen & Hamilton in New York. “The big question is, how will they decide to price the cartridges? Because that’s where all the profit is.”

Dell won’t yet reveal how much the printers or cartridges will cost, but promises the prices will be very competitive.

HP anticipates Dell will face challenges in the printer market that HP is an expert in, said HP spokeswoman Diane Roncal. HP has promised to grow its imaging business by 10 percent over the next year by focusing on growth areas such as digital imaging and publishing, Roncal said.

“We have strong strategies,'” she said. “We’re more convinced than ever that the strategy is dead-on.”

Analysts said if anyone could challenge HP in the imaging arena, it’s Dell.

“I think it is a challenge for HP at this point. Still, printers are a very big and profitable business for them as a company, and they’re challenged on so many other fronts now with the merger [with Compaq],” said Steve Kleynhans, a Dell analyst with Meta Group. “This is just another place where Dell is going to take a shot at them.”

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Houghton Mifflin sells Sunburst Technology to investment firm

Thayer Capital Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity investment firm, has acquired Sunburst Technology, a division of Houghton Mifflin Co. and a leading supplier of software to schools in the United States and Canada.

Sunburst develops and sells educational software for the K-8 market, including such well-known brands as Tenth Planet, HyperStudio, and Type to Learn. The company’s software division is one of three branches; the other two are educational reseller Educational Resources and Sunburst Health and Guidance, which produces videos and printed supplements for educators.

“With the growth in education spending at all levels of government and the greater emphasis on technology in the classroom, we see this as an excellent business opportunity, buying top brands in a very stable industry with strong growth prospects,” said Chris Temple, managing director for Thayer Capital Partners. Jim McVety, a senior analyst for educational market research firm Eduventures Inc., called the move “an interesting transaction” for all parties involved.

Although Houghton said it made the move to get back to its core business, McVety said the company’s decision was puzzling. He said it’s not clear why the publishing giant would choose to divest a highly profitable company with proven experience in such critical areas as reading, math, health, and science.

McVety attributed the sale to Houghton’s own impending sale. Last month, eSchool News reported that French media conglomerate Vivendi Universal—which owns Houghton Mifflin—was looking to unload the company in an effort to shed expenses.

In light of its pending sale, McVety said the publisher probably is looking for ways to secure its own place in the market. “Houghton is struggling to define its future,” he said, adding that the move proves Houghton wants to concentrate its efforts on publishing and assessment.

Thayer, which McVety said has been shopping for a stake in the education market since the mid-90s, finally found a viable entry point in Sunburst. “This is a bold, intelligent step for Thayer,” McVety said. According to him, the company is strong, profitable, and has a good sales model.

McVety said Thayer was “intrigued” by the deal because it gives the firm—which traditionally has been focused on manufacturing businesses—access to “a positive growth market.”

Though executives at Thayer said they are excited about the opportunity to grow the business, there is some question as to whether an investment firm with no prior experience can succeed in an admittedly complex education marketplace.

McVety said Thayer has tried to safeguard itself against such uncertainties by bringing in corporate managers who have proven track records and are considered experts in the field. Sunburst’s new Chief Executive Officer John Crowley, for instance, is former president of Educational Resources. Thayer will use long-time veteran Crowley not only to grow its investment, but also to deflect claims of inexperience and reassure customers that Sunburst’s services are in confident hands, McVety said.

“I think the team is falling in line quickly,” he said. “But the market will need some time to adjust to this.”

McVety said it’s “much too soon yet” to speculate about what this sale might mean for Sunburst’s school customers in the long term. But the first 100 days of the venture should be an indicator of future success, he said.

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“Justice Learning” gives students a first-hand look at democracy in action

The New York Times and National Public Radio have joined forces to create Justice Learning, a civics education web site for high school students and teachers based on NPR’s radio program, “Justice Talking.” The web site uses audio content from “Justice Talking” and related lesson plans and articles from The New York Times Learning Network, a free service for teachers, parents, and students in grades three to 12, to engage students in informed political discourse. Justice Learning is designed around eight distinct civics issues, each updated twice a year. Current issues include affirmative action, civil liberties, the death penalty, gun control, juvenile justice, and web censorship. The project “brings news issues to life for its audience,” says Gary Kalman, communications director of “Justice Talking.” Through articles, editorials, and oral debate from some of the nation’s leading journalists, Justice Learning challenges students to think about the often-conflicting values of America, while learning how each of democracy’s institutions—Congress, the courts, the presidency, the press, and schools—shapes and impacts the issues of our times.

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Launch a space shuttle design project with “SpaceDay.com”

In preparation for Space Day 2003—to be celebrated May 1—this web site is meant to inspire a new generation of aviators and scientific explorers. The site contains a wealth of interactive tools, including online lessons about the many mysteries and achievements of space travel. Students can learn what it takes for astronauts to live and work in space. Or, they can explore the history of flight, participate in space-related trivia games, and solve brainteasers. Another section lets kids use the internet to communicate and collaborate with peers from across the globe as they compete to design model airplanes and spacecraft. Educators, too, will find the site useful. A comprehensive teacher’s section provides a number of lesson plans about space science education and includes ideas for helping students join in the celebration with special activities. Geared toward students in grades four through eight, the site uses several space-age speech and sound effects to hold students’ interest. Organizers of the event, which is chaired by former astronaut and senator John Glenn, say Space Day programs seek to advance science, math, technology, and engineering education and to inspire young people to realize the vision of our space pioneers.

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“eCYBERMISSION” challenges students to be all they can be

With this new contest sponsored by the United States Army, seventh and eighth grade students are encouraged to work together, using science, math, and technology to help solve real-world problems within their communities. Students who wish to compete first must select a “Mission Challenge.” Challenges are left to the discretion of students, as long as the proposed projects focus on one of four themes—arts and entertainment, health and safety, sports and recreation, or the environment—and benefit some aspect of the community in which they live. Once students have chosen a theme, they must put their project into motion. Students are encouraged to collaborate using discussion forums, bulletin boards, and monitored chat sessions through the eCYBERMISSION web site. Challenges will be graded by judges based on a number of criteria, including the use of science, math, and technology; innovation, originality, and creativity; benefit to the community; and teamwork. Any students who submit projects for review will receive a free t-shirt and certificate of commendation. Winners will be eligible for a number of prizes, including savings bonds, plaques, medals, media interviews, and more. Students who wish to compete in the program must submit applications by Nov. 30.

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Bone up on the latest reading research with “The Partnership for Reading”

From the National Institute for Literacy, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the U.S. Department of Education comes The Partnership for Reading, a collaborative effort intended to provide educators with the findings of evidence-based reading research. Educators, parents, and other stakeholders can use this site as a point of reference to research key approaches such as phonics, fluency, vocabulary comprehension, and phonemic awareness. Other resources include suggestions for how to integrate technology into the reading curriculum, as well as links to continuing teacher education. For background, educators have access to the partnership’s criteria for improved reading instruction, including its definition of reading, its research stipulations, and its main principles. The site also provides access to a massive database of reading research materials separated by subject and skill emphasized, as well as recommended resources for continued research and frequently asked questions. The partnership also plans to add an online discussion forum for educators; however, this phase is still under construction.

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Model exemplary teaching practices with the “Digital Edge Learning Interchange”

In August 2001, eSchool News reported that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the International Society for Technology in Education, and Apple Computer—with funding from the AT&T Foundation—had launched a project to create an online library of videos showcasing best practices for teaching with technology. Based on two sets of nationally recognized standards, the videos are intended to help both current and aspiring teachers use technology in the classroom more effectively. Now, the fruits of this labor are ready for schools’ consumption. Teachers can turn to this site for access to online “exhibits” submitted by National Board Certified Teachers who have participated in the program. Each free exhibit contains a number of professional development resources and suggestions for teachers, including lesson plans, video clips, examples of student work, assessment tools, and teacher-student reflections, enabling teachers to learn from the best as they strive to integrate technology into their own curricula.

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