American Association of School Administrators Releases Vision for a New and Improved Elementary and Secondary Education Act

ARLINGTON, Va.–As Congress begins the reauthorization process for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the American Association of School Administrators has released its 2007 Legislative Agenda. ESEA, currently known as No Child Left Behind, is the principal law that establishes federal funding and regulations for K-12 education. AASA´s Legislative Agenda outlines recommendations for a new and improved version of ESEA and calls for a fundamental change in the federal role in education.

"AASA believes the federal government´s role in education is to help provide equal opportunity for each child, and to supplement and support, rather than dictate, state and local education efforts," said Bruce Hunter, AASA associate executive director for public policy. "AASA´s 2007 Legislative Agenda provides guidance on this and other key principles in the reauthorization of ESEA."

AASA´s recommendations for the reauthorization of ESEA include:

*Realign the federal role in education. The federal government should: ensure equal educational opportunity for each child by focusing on those students with the highest degrees of poverty; strengthen, not supplant, state and local efforts in education; keep an oversight role proportional to its financial contribution to local school districts; and coordinate among various federal programs such as health care and housing programs to better mitigate the effects of poverty that have a significant impact on student achievement.

*Focus accountability under ESEA on students with the highest degrees of poverty. However, all students should still be assessed and student achievement data should still be disaggregated by subgroup.

*Grant states the flexibility to use assessment and accountability systems that measure academic progress of individual students, including multiple measures.

*Take into account the individual learning needs of each child when measuring achievement for special education students and English language learners. The progress of English language learners should be measured based on individual student needs and previous education experience with no arbitrary limitations. The progress of special education students should be measured based on individualized needs and conditions.

*Broaden the definition of proficiency to include skills needed for students to be citizens in a global economy, including creative skills, collaborative skills and problem-solving skills, and continue to set standards at the state level.

The AASA Legislative Agenda also provides recommendations on the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, school-based Medicaid claiming, the Universal Children´s Health Insurance, child nutrition, the Higher Education Act, the E-Rate program, the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act, school vouchers and school safety.

MORE INFORMATION

The Legislative Agenda is available online in the AASA Legislative Action Center at www.aasa.org/policy/content.cfm?ItemNumber=7537&token=49189&userID=16163&snItemNumber=7726.

AASA´s public policy experts are available to discuss the proposed changes to ESEA. For more information, contact Bruce Hunter, associate executive director for public policy, at 703-875-0738 or bhunter@aasa.org, or Mary Kusler, assistant director of government relations, at 703-875-0733 or mkusler@aasa.org.

ABOUT AASA

AASA, founded in 1865, is the professional organization for more than 13,000 educational leaders across the United States. AASA´s mission is to support and develop effective school system leaders who are dedicated to the highest quality public education for all children. AASA´s major focus is standing up for public education. For more information, please visit www.aasa.org.

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Students Reports High Satisfaction with Online DETC Accredited Institutions

ORANGE BEACH, AL–Student satisfaction with online learning at Distance Education and Training Council (DETC) accredited colleges and universities is at an all-time high. According to the 2006 DETC Outcomes Assessment, 9 out of 10 students who enroll in an online DETC accredited college or university reported a high level of satisfaction with their educational experience.

Assessment results also indicate that 9 out of 10 students achieve their learning goals through their distance learning curriculum. In addition, more than 97 percent of non-degree seeking and 94 percent of degree seeking online students are recommending their alma mater to a friend.

"Our quality programs, excellent student service, and maximum transfer credit are the hallmarks of Columbia Southern University," said Robert Mayes, President of Columbia Southern University, a DETC accredited private online university in Orange Beach, Alabama. "We want our students to know that our top priority is helping them succeed in their online degree program."

Each year, DETC accredited institutions must randomly select students to engage in this formal Outcomes Assessment process through a survey aimed at measuring student satisfaction with their educational experience. Founded in 1926, the DETC is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education Accreditation as a "nationally recognized accrediting agency".

"The outstanding results of this assessment document that DETC colleges and universities are delivering on their promises to students," said Michael P. Lambert, DETC Executive Director. "For the past four consecutive years, survey results have yielded that DETC accredited institutions of higher learning are giving value and are worthy of public confidence."

Online education has become an increasingly popular trend in the U.S., with an online enrollment rate surpassing that of traditional universities. According to the 2006 Sloan Consortium study, Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, nearly 3.2 million students were enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2005 term–a significant increase over the 2.3 million reported the previous year. Colleges and universities all over the world are hopping on the bandwagon and are beginning to offer more online programs to satisfy this growing demand.

The majority of students who enroll in online programs are typically older with career and family responsibilities making online education a more realistic possibility for their educational needs. Enrollment numbers are highest for online undergraduate courses.

The Distance Education and Training Council is a non-profit educational association and nationally recognized accrediting agency located in Washington, D.C. created to promote sound educational standards and ethical business practices within the correspondence field. For more information, please contact Jessica Brown, Coordinator of Public Relations for Columbia Southern University, at (251) 224-0561.

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Rochester Institute of Technology Triumphs Over Lunar Terrain in College Division of NASA´s Great Moonbuggy Race

HUNTSVILLE, Ala.–Speeding across a simulated lunar surface, the Rochester Institute of Technology of Rochester, N.Y., rumbled to victory in the college division of NASA´s 14th annual Great Moonbuggy Race in Huntsville, Ala.

Finishing with the fastest time in a field of 22 college teams from across the continental United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, they raced their original moonbuggy design at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the annual host of the race.

Sponsored by Northrop Grumman Corp., the Great Moonbuggy Race is inspired by the original lunar rovers that traversed the moon during the last three Apollo missions in the early 1970s. Since 1994, the Great Moonbuggy Race has inspired tomorrow´s engineers with the annual design and racing competition that takes place adjacent to NASA´s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, where engineers built and tested those first lunar rovers.

The challenge faced by the students is similar to that faced by the original lunar-rover engineers–create a vehicle that is compact, light, flexible, durable and able to withstand the rigors of the grueling lunar surface. For today´s students, the hands-on experience may inspire them to pursue careers in math, science and engineering and could lead them to participate in NASA´s Vision for Space Exploration of returning to the moon, reaching Mars and destinations beyond.

The Rochester Institute of Technology team finished the course in four minutes and 38 seconds, nine seconds ahead of the second-place team from the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao. Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kan., finished in third place.

The Rochester Institute of Technology team received a cash prize from Northrop Grumman and a trophy depicting NASA´s original lunar rover vehicle. The second- and third-place teams received plaques honoring their achievement, and individual members of all three teams received medals.

The award for "Best Design" went to the Pittsburg State University for best solving the engineering problem of navigating the lunar surface. Murray State University of Murray, Ky., was awarded "Most Unique Buggy" in the college division. A special "Pits Crew Award" for ingenuity and persistence in overcoming problems during the race was won by Morningside College of Sioux City, Iowa. Carleton University of Ontario, Canada, was recognized for braving the most spectacular crash on the brutal, "lunar" terrain.

The University of Utah in Salt Lake City earned the "Rookie Award" for posting the fastest first-year time in the competition and also won a special safety systems award. The "Most Improved" award went to returning race competitors from Pittsburg State University.

Other college racers, listed alphabetically by state, were Alabama A & M University in Huntsville; Southern Illinois University in Carnbondale, Ill.; the University of Evansville in Evansville, Ill.; Purdue University Calumet in Hammond, In.; Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.; Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio; Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio; Cameron University in Lawton, Okla.; the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga; Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tenn.; Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro; the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; Tennessee Technology University in Cookeville; and the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

In the high school division race Friday, the Huntsville Center for Technology of Huntsville, Ala., outraced 25 teams with a time of three minutes and 34 seconds, 10 seconds ahead of the second-place team, which also hailed from the Huntsville Center for Technology. Lafayette County C-1 in Higginsville, Mo., finished in third place

The moonbuggy racing tradition began in 1994 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Eight college teams participated that first year, and in 1996 the race was expanded to include high school teams.

Many volunteers from both the Marshall Center and the space industry ensure the success of the event. This was the second year Northrop Grumman Corp. sponsored the Great Moonbuggy Race. Other contributors included the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA); ATK Launch Systems, Inc.; CBS affiliate WHNT Channel 19 of Huntsville; Jacobs Technology; Morgan Research Corp.; Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC); the Tennessee Valley Chapter of the System Safety Society Inc.; and the United Space Alliance, LLC.

For photos of the top-finishing college teams, visit the Marshall Newsroom at:
http://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/news

For more event details, race rules, and information on the course, visit:
http://moonbuggy.msfc.nasa.gov/

For more information about NASA and the Vision for Space Exploration, visit:
http://www.nasa.gov/

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Wegener to Demonstrate Network Control of HD/SD Video Multicasts for VSAT Networks at NAB 2007

(April 13, 2007)–DULUTH, Georgia–Wegener Corporation (Nasdaq: WGNR), a leading provider of equipment for television, audio and data distribution networks worldwide, today announced its plans to showcase the COMPEL® network control system in a live VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) network at the National Association of Broadcasters 2007 Convention (Booth #SU7915). The end-to-end, bi-directional demonstration will showcase live, simultaneous streaming of one standard definition (SD) and one high definition (HD) MPEG-4/h.264 video feed over an existing VSAT network to the WEGENER SMD 515 IPTV set-top box. The VSAT network operations will be provided by SDN Global.

VSAT networks traditionally use bi-directional satellite transmissions to pass data back and forth, for applications such as, credit card transactions between retail outlets and a central business office. The advent of advanced video compression technologies, particularly MPEG-4/h.264, means that VSAT networks can now carry high quality, compressed video over the same network infrastructure.

"This demonstration is designed to show that using COMPEL within a VSAT operation is a viable technology for controlling multicast video over private networks," said Ned L. Mountain, President of WEGENER. "Retail organizations that are using existing VSAT networks for bi-directional data transmissions can now dynamically manage high-quality video for in-store promotions and other digital signage applications. This also opens the door for gaming networks and smaller broadcast organizations, including religious and corporate broadcasters, to use VSAT networks as a transmission platform for video."

SDN Global, a satellite technology company based in North Carolina, will provide routing and server equipment as a crucial part of the demonstration. The SDN Global solution will stream HD and SD video content over their existing VSAT network and equipment to the WEGENER IPTV set-top. The SMD 515 IPTV set top box is a high quality IPTV device designed for receiving television programming over DSL or fiber networks. In a VSAT network, the set tops are remotely commanded to change channel by WEGENER´s COMPEL network control system. The set top boxes then decode the video for display at the receiving end, making it ideal for dynamic scheduling within point-to-multipoint VSAT delivery networks in retail and gaming environments.

"Today´s advanced VSAT technology enables transmission and control of high-quality, multicast video over standard VSAT equipment," said Dennis Ewald, Director of Business Development, SND Global. "We are pleased to be working with WEGENER on this demonstration and look forward to working together in the future."

ABOUT WEGENER

WEGENER (WEGENER Communications, Inc.), a wholly-owned subsidiary of WEGENER Corporation (Nasdaq: WGNR), is an international provider of digital solutions for video, audio, and IP data networks. Applications include IP data delivery, broadcast television, cable television, radio networks, business television, distance education, business music and financial information distribution. COMPEL, WEGENER´s patented network control system, provides networks with unparalleled ability to regionalize programming and commercials. COMPEL network control capability is integrated into WEGENER digital satellite receivers. WEGENER can be reached at +1.770.814.4000 or on the World Wide Web at www.WEGENER.com.

COMPEL, MEDIAPLAN, ENVOY, UNITY, and iPUMP are trademarks of WEGENER Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Dual roles a focus of student-loan probe

The New York Times reports that investigations into student lending abuses are broadening in both Washington and Albany. Walter C. Cathie, vice president at Widener University created his own consulting company named Key West Higher Education Associates, which specializes in conferences that bring college deans of finance with lenders who want to court them. His dual roles have put him at center stage of these deepening investigations, as a prime example of how cozy college financial administrators–who advise students–have become with lenders…

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/13/education/13loans.html?ex=1177128000&en=eca988e5ef91d1af&ei=5070&emc=eta1

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Apple to delay release of new OS X

USA Today reports that Apple has announced that its anticipated next-generation operating system, Mac OS X "Leopard" will not ship in June as planned, and will now ship in October instead. This delay is partly because Apple had to reassign some workers in an effort to complete the iPhone project…

http://www.usatoday.com/

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Senators propose labels for adult web sites

CNET reports that according to a new United States Senate proposal, operators of web sites with racy content must label their sites and register in a national director or be fined. This move represents the latest effort from Washington, D.C. to crack down on sex on the internet. These requirements appear in legislation by two Senate Democrats, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Max Baucus of Montana, who say that the bill will "clean up the internet for children." …

http://news.com.com/Senators+propose+labels+for+adult+Web+sites/2100-1028_3-6175549.html?tag=nefd.top

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Lawmakers face flap over iPods in classrooms

An idea to give Michigan students an iPod or other MP3 player as a learning tool has been met with sharp criticism in a state that is facing a budget shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Michigan House Democrats tried to derail the distracting controversy April 12, saying a statement made the previous week about providing iPods for Michigan students had been misconstrued and was diverting focus from the state’s budget crisis.

Democrats, at least for now, say they aren’t considering providing an iPod or MP3 player for Michigan students. House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford, said in a statement this week the initiative can’t be pursued until the state has settled its budget problems.

The iPod idea first surfaced last week during a broad, budget-related press conference held by House Democrats. Rep. Matt Gillard, D-Alpena and chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing K-12 school budgets, discussed a $38 million “21st Century Learning Environments” plan. He also pulled out an iPod and said “we want this in the hands of every student in the state of Michigan.”

Rep. Tim Melton, D-Auburn Hills, said there is no plan to provide iPods for Michigan students and there never was one. He said much of the $38 million would go toward professional development for teachers, which Gillard also mentioned last week.

“This thing has spun completely out of control,” Melton said April 12. “We take responsibility for a piece of that.”

But Melton said Democrats, including Dillon, were disappointed the iPod issue came to dominate media coverage about the broad budget ideas discussed last week.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis said in a statement that Melton’s comments “failed to put to rest the most serious concerns Michigan citizens have about this proposal.”

Apple Inc., maker of the iPod, at least partly paid for Dillon, Melton, and Gillard to visit its California headquarters earlier this year. On April 12, Melton said the lawmakers will pay the price of that trip–$1,702 each–out of their own pockets.

Democrats said the trip wasn’t much different from those taken to Apple when Republicans were in charge of the state House. Those trips, in 2002 and 2003, came after then-House Speaker Rick Johnson, a Republican, started working on a program that provided laptop computers to some Michigan students.

The laptop program, called Freedom to Learn, eventually ended up using computers provided by Hewlett-Packard Co. The state’s budget problems essentially caused a halt to the program before it got beyond the pilot stage.

Johnson, now a lobbyist with Fraser Consulting, appeared with Melton at the April 12 press conference.

Both Democrats and Johnson said the state should be committed to improving technology in Michigan classrooms.

Among educators, reaction to the iPod idea has been mixed.

“This is a case of legislators trying to do a nice thing for educators but not having a clue about what we’re trying to get accomplished on a day-to-day basis,” said Jon Felske, superintendent of Wyoming Public Schools outside Grand Rapids.

Lawmakers instead should give schools money for new labs, because more high school students will be taking chemistry to meet Michigan’s new graduation requirements, Felske said.

Paul Pominville, director of technology for Howell Public Schools, had a different take, although he worried how thousands of the portable storage devices would be kept from being stolen, lost, or broken. He said teachers have approached him about doing podcasts and recording lessons, but the district doesn’t have the money.

“It would open up a different way of teaching,” Pominville said, noting that Apple’s iTunes online store has free educational audio and video content for students. “Kids will love it. This is what they use all the time.”

Schools usually require students to turn off music-listening devices in the classroom.
Even if every penny of the $38 million were spent on music and video players, schools would get less than $24 for each of Michigan’s 1.6 million public school students. Full-price iPods can cost from $79 for an iPod shuffle to $349 for one that holds 20,000 songs.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan, sensing the proposal could be in trouble, on April 11 said the initiative is much broader than buying devices.

“We don’t want this controversy to derail what is a good thing,” Flanagan said in a statement. “We are adding education technology to the high graduation requirements and into the proposed revisions to the state’s teacher preparation programs. Schools, teachers, and students all need to embrace this emerging way to learn.”

Links:

Michigan Legislature
http://www.legislature.mi.gov

Apple Inc.
http://www.apple.com

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Video helps overhaul district’s curriculum

Recognizing the need to engage a new generation of students who are visual learners, Maryland’s Baltimore County Public Schools–the nation’s 25th-largest school system–has installed video servers and a video-on-demand system in all of its 169 schools.

The system, SAFARI Montage by the Library Video Company, will allow teachers to access and play more than a thousand video programs from leading publishers such as National Geographic and Scholastic. It also will enable Baltimore County to expand not only its curricular offerings, but also its professional development, according to school district officials.

"The vision is to make the curriculum more 21st-century and engaging," said Della Curtis, coordinator for Baltimore County’s Office of Library Information Services (LIS).

The use of video on demand is nothing new for schools. A growing number of districts–including such large school systems as the Chicago Public Schools and Nevada’s Clark County School District–have begun integrating digital video clips into lessons. But what distinguishes Baltimore County’s effort is that the district has convened teams of teachers in each school to brainstorm ways of using the new resources to their fullest potential across each academic discipline.

"Our school system is proud to have won local, national, and even international awards for its use of technology in furthering student achievement," said Joe A. Hairston, Baltimore County superintendent and a 2005 recipient of eSchool News’ Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award. "It is important for us to provide our staff and students with technology that supports the essential teaching and learning process taking place in our classrooms every day. We are always interested in technology that is user-friendly and proven effective and that provides staff with the flexibility to meet students’ needs."

School district officials aim to implement the system district-wide to "support the entire curriculum, and make it multimedia," said Andrew Schlessinger, CEO of Library Video Company. Baltimore County educators "are spending a lot of time developing lesson plans for the 2007-08 school year, but they’re also using them already," Schlessinger said.

He added that Baltimore County’s video project "represents our vision for how we’d like to see the product used. … This is really the first district I can honestly say is 100 percent behind everything that SAFARI Montage can do."

The video content isn’t hosted on Library Video’s servers, Schlessinger said, but instead resides on the district’s network in a peer-to-peer type of relationship, much like a YouTube-style environment, but which is controlled and targeted specifically for the school field.

Curtis said Baltimore County evaluated streaming video products for the past two years and chose SAFARI Montage as its solution because the system will allow the district to bring multimedia and moving images to classrooms without compromising bandwidth.

Content from producers such as PBS, National Geographic, and Scholastic also was a plus, she said.

Baltimore County’s own television studio, The Education Channel, broadcasts to the district and community during the day and evenings. Before implementing SAFARI Montage, Curtis said, if educators wanted to have a copy of the educational programs that appeared on the channel, they could either copy these programs during the daytime broadcast, or at home during the evening.

Now, with SAFARI, educators also can show these programs in their classes at any time.

"It’s a delivery system for our own knowledge assets," and not just Library Video’s content, Curtis said: "Particularly our own educational productions–productions that are intended to support the delivery of curriculum."

Curtis said district leaders have met with Maryland Public Television officials, with the goal of having Baltimore County access and distribute MPT content through the system, too. Although discussions were under way, no deal had been reached as of press time, she said.

From the main LIS web page, Curtis and her team have started building a web portal with all vital information on the SAFARI distribution system and its available video content. The district’s teachers also have embraced the system and have formed leadership teams at each school, she said.

Each school’s principal is responsible for implementation, and he or she is in charge of selecting a SAFARI Montage leadership team that will provide school-based leadership and a teacher forum to ensure an effective transition, Curtis explained. These leadership teams are getting professional development and guidance from the district’s LIS office, as well as the instructional technology office.

From the district’s LIS web site, staff members have access to several academic exercises and activities that already have incorporated SAFARI content to enhance the curriculum. Teachers can incorporate SAFARI video clips into their lessons and can view videos showing best teaching practices, such as a science-experiment guide that shows how the experiment should be conducted.

The implementation has been a combined effort of the district’s offices of professional development, library information services, instructional technology, and information technology.

"What was really phenomenal was that in 169 schools, it only took two and a half weeks to put a server in every school and set up logins for teachers," Curtis said. An IT staff of just a few people dedicated themselves to setting up the servers in each school.

"So those who would say [implementing a video-on-demand project is too much trouble], that’s the legacy for this project–it’s surprising how quickly it was deployed and how quickly teachers were using the system," she added.

Baltimore County’s video project comes as an audit from Phi Delta Kappa International sharply criticized the district for a lack of oversight and teacher training that has undermined academic progress and perpetuated an achievement gap among minorities, auditors said. Among other recommendations, Baltimore County needs to improve its management and development of curriculum, according to the audit.

Curtis said SAFARI Montage’s presence in the district will "move us in positive ways toward addressing some of the recommendations of the audit."

One of the audit’s recommendations "was that our curriculum needs to actively engage kids, and the children we teach right now watch hours of TV and use the internet all the time … it’s a very media-saturated generation, and when it comes to media, I think our kids are mass consumers," Curtis said.

"This resource is … going to be very appealing to our kids but is also going to empower our educators with a tool to help teach kids some skills that are very important, [such as] media skills and being able to look at media content with critical listening, viewing, and reading skills," she added.

"I have never implemented a technology like this that the teachers are really embracing and excited about and just started using intuitively," Curtis concluded. "Our curriculum needs to have active learners and query-based learning. Giving kids the tools they’re used to using and bringing them to the classroom is going to be a lot more motivating than a textbook."

Links:

Baltimore County Public Schools
http://www.bcps.org

SAFARI Montage
http://www.safarimontage.com

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Robots tackle core of STEM education

Hoping to inspire a new crop of engineers, many educators are turning to robotics, holding design competitions, and challenging classmates to outdo one another in a battle for technical supremacy.

At the Lummi Nation School in Bellingham, Wash., for example, a group of eighth-grade science students recently worked with volunteers at Western Washington University to build remote-controlled robots used to explore the ocean.

At the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering in Stamford, Conn., high school students build electronic cars and other mechanical devices as part of an introductory class on the elements of robotics.

And later this month, in Atlanta, more than 20,000 people will gather in the Georgia Dome for the finals of the 2007 FIRST Robotics Competition. FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, is an annual event that brings K-12 students from every state and at least three countries together to compete in a series of robotics challenges.

Part Super Bowl, part high school science fair, the event takes winning teams from 37 national and international regional events and pits them against one another in a bid for the best student-made robot. Some 9,000 students from 1,300 different teams will square off in three separate competitions to determine which team has what it takes to win.

When it comes to engaging students in technical disciplines, few activities are a bigger draw than robotics. "Robotics brings a real sizzle to engineering," said Niel Tebbano, vice president of operations for Project Lead the Way, a national initiative that offers eight high-school-level courses designed to expose students to the rigor of engineering before they reach college. "It’s something that’s always been very appealing to young people."

Robots in the classroom

But robots aren’t just tools for technical education. When used effectively, some experts say, they can be important cogs in the learning process, providing a new way of thinking for students, while helping to illustrate abstract concepts that–before the integration of such devices into the classroom–had proved difficult to teach.

As the chief executive officer of Valiant Technology, a U.K.-based engineering and design firm that builds robots for use by teachers and students, Dave Catlin is an advocate. Catlin’s company reportedly has sold more than a quarter of a million of its Roamer robots to schools.

Catlin says he hopes to build on the success of his original Roamer robot with the upcoming release of Roamer Too, a sleek new version of the original device that integrates voice capabilities and other features for a more interactive user experience. Already being demonstrated in the U.K., Catlin said, Roamer Too should be available in the U.S. this summer.

Resembling an oversized mushroom cap on wheels, the plastic, dome-shaped devices reportedly are being used in classrooms to do everything from impart simple mathematics concepts, to engage developmentally disabled learners. In some cases, Catlin says, schools even are using the robots as mechanical guinea pigs, giving aspiring engineers a chance to dissect them in the name of practical knowledge. What’s more, he says, at less than $150 per machine, depending on accessories and software, the Roamer likely won’t break the bank where school budgets are concerned.

Michael Doyle, program manager for math, science, and technology at the Cattaraugus Allegany Board of Cooperative Educational Services in southwestern New York, said educators in the 22 school districts his organization serves currently have access to at least 60 of the machines and use them in subjects ranging from English to mathematics.

Constantly on the hunt for new ways to leverage technology in the classroom, Doyle said, he first learned of the Roamer’s versatility when an English teacher in one of his schools used a set of robots to help teach a lesson on Three Billy Goats Gruff, the age-old folktale about three goats that try to cross a bridge guarded by an evil troll.

Instead of simply reading the story to the class and later leading students in a discussion about its meaning, Doyle said, the teacher had the students program the robots to act as characters in the book, using the technology to reconstruct the story for their classmates.

Where the exercise served to teach students about the basic elements of the story, he said, it also encouraged them to work together in teams, using their critical thinking and problem-solving skills to decipher simple mathematics equations, program the robots on the computer, and choreograph the movements of each machine to reflect the storyline.

"The planning that was involved in being able to do that was just incredible," Doyle said of the project.

Now, as efforts such as NCLB force schools to get tough on teaching STEM disciplines, Doyle says, teachers are becoming increasingly interested in the power of robotics–not so much as a lesson in high technology, but as a fundamental tool for helping students master the basics.

Throughout southwestern New York, he said, tech-savvy educators reportedly are using the Roamer robots to help emphasize certain geometric concepts, teach students how to plot points on a navigational map, and lead lessons in beginning programming and engineering.

Unlike most textbooks, where problems are written out on paper and to exact results, robotic tools such as the Roamer illustrate the unpredictability of math in the real world, Doyle says. For instance, students using the Roamer must account for a series of real-world variables such as the impact of the floor’s surface–carpet or tile–on movement, and other circumstances beyond their control.

"When you’re driving down the road, you’re not necessarily driving in a straight line," explained Doyle. "There are all sorts of variables to contend with." The Roamer helps students learn to account for these, he said.

At the Mathematics & Science Center in Richmond, Va., K-5 math and physical science teacher Gail Warren says educators use Valiant’s Roamer to teach third-graders about such fundamental concepts as angles, degrees, and basic geometry. Instead of simply drawing shapes on a board or manipulating them on a computer screen, she said, teachers work with students to program the movements into the robots and then watch as the machines carry out each action as assigned.

Not unlike learning a foreign language, Warren said, it’s important for students to interact with technology at a young age. The earlier they pick it up, she said, the more likely they are to retain the information being taught–a benefit that will only serve to help them as they compete for jobs in an increasingly technology-driven workforce.

That his Roamers are being deployed for such a myriad of purposes is no surprise to Catlin. When it comes to designing robots for use in schools, he says, there is a difference between creating devices for entertainment and building them as tools for learning.

Expanding on research first cultivated by famed MIT professor Seymour Papert, Catlin designs his machines, in part, using the Logo programming language–an educational philosophy that examines how children learn through their interaction with other people and the world around them.

Papert first illustrated the Logo concept through the creation of a rudimentary robot called the Turtle. Similar to Catlin’s Roamer, the Turtle was a small device that moved around on the floor and responded to commands typed by teachers and students into a computer.

Just as the robots "learn" from completing a series of tasks, Catlin said, students also are able to improve their understanding of basic concepts by observing theirs and others’ interactions with the robot.

The theory is simple: Children learn best when they are able to visualize a concept, then further explain themselves by drawing on prior knowledge.

By watching the robot perform a basic function such as moving across the floor five feet, Catlin explained, a student is able to visualize five feet as a unit of measurement, forming a picture in his or her mind of what five feet looks like in real terms.

Such mental connections are difficult to make when tethered to a computer. But by providing the means for students to put their hands on the technology, to give the robot commands and observe its actions firsthand, he said, educators can go a long way toward ensuring that young learners not only grasp, but retain, the information being taught.

"If you make something exciting for a kid, [he or she] will remember it forever," Catlin said. "The robot helps give students that practical experience … it helps build that intuitiveness, that understanding."

The technology also reportedly has worked to engage learning disabled and other developmentally challenged students who are hard to reach in traditional learning environments, said Catlin. In some cases, the robot acts as a calming agent, forcing kids to focus their attention on something that operates under their own control.

In some high schools, he said, educators even use the robots to help teach advanced technology skills–a move that has transformed the Roamer from a tool for teaching basic concepts such as math and English to a means of educating students about the nuances of mechanical design and engineering.

On a grander stage

The Roamer isn’t the only tool educators have at their disposal for putting the "E" back into STEM education. After launching with 28 teams in 1992, FIRST reportedly has experienced double-digit growth each year since its inception, with a 15 percent spike in participation this year alone.

Chief Marketing Officer John Marchiony said there is little doubt that a renewed emphasis in STEM education is driving interest in the program, which features three different robotics challenges targeted at students in grades K-12.

"A growing number of individuals and corporations have identified looming gaps in their workforce," Marchiony said. To help fill those gaps, leading technology corporations and organizations–including BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, and NASA–have combined to provide the financial backing and services to support the competition.

Apart from giving corporate sponsors a chance to flag top talent, Marchiony said, the program also helps foster important 21st-century skills such as teamwork and collaboration–providing an experience for students that mirrors what they’re likely to encounter in the business world, no matter what career they choose.

Students work together in teams to research, design, and build their own robots using a kit and guidelines pulled together by the folks at FIRST. The teams then join with other teams from across the country to form alliances, competing against teams in other alliances to advance through the tournament.

"We emphasize a concept called gracious professionalism," said Marchiony. "Basically, the idea is for the kids to compete like crazy and go home proud of how they performed."

When the program first launched in the early 90s, Marchiony said, the robots competed in simple tasks such as pushing past opponents on a ramp. But as the technology has evolved, so, too, has the challenge for students. This year, he says, contestants are competing under the theme "Rack ‘n’ Roll." As part of the competition, the remote-controlled robots are required to pick up plastic tubes and hang them on a rack in the center of the ring. Teams have two minutes and 15 seconds to hang as many tubes as they can. The team that hangs the most tubes successfully by the end of the round wins.

Whether educators choose to enter their students in a national robotics competition or invest in robots for use in their classrooms, Catlin stresses this: The technology "is not by any means a panacea." Like any classroom solution, he says, the machines are only as good as the curriculum that surrounds them.

"It’s sort of like saying, ‘Does a pencil meet the standards?’" said Catlin. "The technology is a tool. It provokes kids to think."

Links:

Cattaraugus Allegany BOCES
http://www.caboces.org/

Logo Foundation
http://el.media.mit.edu/logo-foundation/

Mathematics & Science Center
http://www.mathsciencecenter.info/

Project Lead the Way
http://www.pltw.org/

Valiant Technology
http://www.valiant-technology.com/

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