On April 20, participating schools will take part in a first-ever Imagine a Technology Blackout Day, an exercise meant to underscore technology’s value by way of contrast: Participants are being asked–for one day–to avoid all the technologies that keep the world running.

Blackout Day follows up on ESTEME Week, held from April 11-15, with the acronym standing for Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) partnered with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other federal agencies and scientific societies to support activities for this year’s ESTEME Week.

The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) is sponsoring the blackout initiative. SETDA invites students and parents to imagine for one full day what life would be like without access to current technologies such as computers, cell phones, handheld devices, DVDs, the internet, data systems, or eMail.

SETDA organizers are framing the event with lesson plans and timelines that track how technology has radically transformed the world over the last few decades. Students are being asked to develop their own definition of technology and analyze the impact that innovation has had on their daily lives and the nation. The curriculum addresses specific state standards in social studies, government, and language arts and also reinforces efficacy, innovation, traditional literacy, and technology skills, SETDA said. Age-appropriate materials are available for students in grades K-12.

“We were seeking a positive way to look at educational technology and get people for whom the technology makes a difference–students, parents, and teachers–involved in the process,” said Melinda George, executive director of SETDA.

“The reason I think it’s a positive way to do it is because we’re not looking at funding cuts, or anything negative,” George said. “We’re looking at why parents and teachers want their children to have technology available.”

George said SETDA wants to capture some of the concrete ways that technology is being used in learning and the kind of difference it’s making. Toward that end, the organization is encouraging participants to submit to SETDA the results of the experiment for a chance to win more than $5,000 in prizes.

“People are registering,” George said. “We’ve got a couple hundred teachers who are already registered. We’ve been getting a lot of feedback from students and teachers telling us why technology is important to them. That’s great to see before [the initiative] even launches.”

George encourages teachers to think outside the guidelines provided by the lesson plans.

“I think there are a lot of lessons that could be taught that are beyond what we have lesson plans for,” she said. “I think people are going to be surprised by imagining how technology–and all the different kinds of technology–impacts our lives. I think this is going to be a really creative experience, and I would encourage teachers and students to look at it that way.”

George added, “We really want to emphasize this is a month-long event. We are not asking people to unplug their computers for that day. In fact, we need people to leave them plugged in, so they can follow through on the lesson plans and things like that. The Technology Blackout Day is really about imagination.”

SETDA’s initiative dovetails with the events of ESTEME Week, which examined how students can apply science and technology to benefit society, emphasizing the importance of math and science education in the age of globalization. Toward that end, the program highlighted how U.S. citizens benefit from scientists of diverse backgrounds and cultures working together to solve the complex problems of today.

ESTEME Week organizers invited students, teachers, and the community at large to recognize advances in the fields of science, math, engineering, and technology by attending or helping to produce a public event, or by supporting a hands-on science experience in the home, school, or community.

The program’s web site, which is accessible year-round, features links to award-winning sites on topics such as numbers in everyday life, cell biology and evolution, earth and the environment, “what’s in toothpaste?,” how molecules affect us, and “the science behind the headlines.” Students also can design a virtual roller coaster, watch an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame, compose music, and explore tombs in the Valley of the Kings. WebQuests featured on the site offer student lessons in such diverse topics as forensic science, sports statistics, and the bioethics of cloning.

Winners of this year’s Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching gathered in Washington, D.C., to collect their awards and take part in activities related to ESTEME Week.

“This award recognizes the contributions that teachers make to America’s legacy of progress by encouraging young people to study and understand math and science,” wrote President Bush in a letter to all the awardees. “With a strong foundation in these critical subjects, today’s students will be able to better compete and succeed in the 21st-century workforce.”

Awardees received a $10,000 gift from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency that administers the awards program.

Liz Larwa, an elementary education awardee from Michigan, said she takes an interdisciplinary approach to teaching science and uses technology to support her lesson plans. Larwa said this approach appeals to her diverse student population, engages students with different interests simultaneously, and motivates them to take a more active interest in science.

One lesson she has developed uses both high-tech and low-tech strategies to engage students.

“I combine both science and language arts,” Larwa said. “I use a big, projected planetarium [software] program called StarLab. It shows regular star fields, and it also zeroes in on star fields with constellations.”

Each student tells a story about an assigned constellation that includes both the myth upon which it was based and something about the constellation’s astronomical significance. Students make a “story rope” to help navigate the story. To do that, students take the constellation’s narrative and break it down into smaller segments. They then design a symbol that corresponds with that element of the story, and they tie those symbols to a length of string.

In total darkness illuminated only by the “night sky,” students feel their way through the story of the constellation, relying on the symbols attached to the ropes to act as mnemonics devices to remind them of the story’s significance. Through this activity, they become actively engaged in the lesson on several levels, she said. They learn about the constellations in a way that stays with them for the purposes of future testing–and beyond.

Larwa said the story rope idea itself is adapted from a Native American storytelling ritual.

Teachers honored for their excellence in science and math instruction got to do some stargazing of their own when renowned ocean explorer and founder of the JASON Foundation for Education, Robert Ballard, and NASA Chief Scientist James B. Garvin delivered keynote addresses to the award winners.

Ballard told the crowd of outstanding science and math teachers that, as a child, he dreamed of being Captain Nemo. Born in Wichita, Kansas, “where all oceanographers come from,” Ballard was assigned to a deep-sea diving submarine while in the Navy. He talked about discovering the wreckage of the Titanic and establishing the JASON Foundation for Education.

“But the children in your classroom will explore more of Earth than [all] past generations combined,” he said. “They’re going to make discoveries that are going to change the way we know the world.”

Ballard encouraged teachers to “use technology to take [students] to the battlefield of truth.”

He said technology can open worlds to students that have never been available before in a traditional classroom. He discussed his adventures discovering the wrecked Titanic, showing video and describing the ship as “a gravesite with shoes as tombstones.”

Ballard said he saw early on the instructional potential of having a camera present during his expeditions. The video presence, he said, also helped to network scientists.

“Opening up these kinds of underwater museums to students would never be possible without technology,” Ballard said.

Developing a strong background in math and science is prerequisite to a career similar to the one Ballard has carved out for himself, he said. He said his experience has been that students will warm to instruction in these topic areas when it is presented as a gateway to far greater things.

“Think of it as preparing for sports,” he said. “You need to do your wind sprints and your pushups.”

Ballard also noted that, with current technologies, the ability to bring the excitement of learning and exploration to the classroom in real time has engaged students better in the study of these courses.

During another part of the proceedings, NASA’s Garvin discussed his experience as a research scientist and recounted the benefits of a hands-on approach to the sciences. Teachers should encourage students to explore the world–and the universe–through science, he said. Noting the value of objective fact, he commented: “I’ve never met a rock that lied to me.”

He added: “Earth is where we start. It’s our window into the universe.”

Understanding the Earth, Garvin said, is one way of better understanding other planets, the origins of the universe, and our place in it. Even as he as cited Earth as the starting place for studies of the universe, however, he encouraged the crowd of science and math teachers to “get off this Earth-centric kick we have.”

“Mass-wise,” he said, Earth is “bloody insignificant” in the universe. “We have to get used to it,” he said.

Garvin also encouraged teachers to use technology to reach students.

“There are some who are now saying that we don’t even need space exploration, because the technology is so advanced we can create those conditions virtually,” he said. Though Garvin disagrees with that assertion, the chief scientist of NASA noted his agency has had 9.8 million web hits for the site dedicated to its Mars Rover program. He said this speaks to the natural interest that students have in space exploration and makes Mars a good hook for reaching middle school kids “before they are ravaged by puberty.”

Links:

Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education (ESTEME) Week
http://www.esteme.org

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

JASON Foundation for Education
http://www.jason.org/home.htm

National Aeronautics and Space Administration
http://www.nasa.gov

State Educational Technology Directors Association
http://www.setda.org

Imagine a Technology Blackout Day
http://www.technologyblackoutday.com