Exciting things are happening in Star City, Arkansas. This small town of a little more than 2,000 people just learned that its high school Environmental and Spatial Technology (EAST) program was named the 2007 recipient of the Timothy R. Stephenson Founder’s Award by the EAST Initiative, an educational nonprofit that oversees EAST programs nationally.

How did a small, rural school stand out from the field of more than 170 programs nationally? The school merely motivated its students to outperform anyone’s expectations in providing community service using very sophisticated technology tools.

Among the projects that the Star City students have undertaken are an awareness seminar in the opportunities for women in high-tech fields; a comprehensive, anti-drunk-driving campaign (which has led to collaboration with the Arkansas State Police on a statewide video campaign); and a seminar titled “Enough is Enough,” involving local self-defense instructors and the Arkansas Attorney General’s office, that aims to raise awareness of the issues of child abuse and abduction. Any of these seminars would be worthwhile for local teens to attend, but the Star City students are actually coordinating and developing these activities. They are taking charge of their education in a way that benefits their whole community.

But that’s not all the students from Star City are doing. They have developed and hosted a senior adult technology training program that teaches basic technology skills to the elderly in the community–a project that is being replicated in other communities in the region. They have collected data on the availability of broadband access in their town as part of a regional project aimed at increasing this availability. They have collected oral history of the wartime experiences of local veterans. They are collaborating with a local environmental group and gathering GIS data on a local bayou (which just happens to be the longest in the world, and one of the two most ecologically diverse bayous in North America). Somewhere amid all of this activity, the 57 students in the Star City EAST program also go to English, math, and history classes and worry about prom dates and homecoming basketball games just like every other high school student in the country.

The EAST program

Where is this innovation and incredible work coming from? A program that started in Arkansas a dozen years ago, called EAST, that has been recognized nationally as an innovative, relevant, and successful approach to education. EAST combines the power of cutting-edge technology, real teamwork, and significant community service in a manner that helps students develop their own interests and aptitudes in a positive environment. At the core of the EAST program is a dedication to service.

All students, regardless of past experience or previous expectations, are encouraged, expected, and required to work in teams that tackle self-selected community service projects. In the context of these projects, EAST students often move beyond being “merely” volunteers and begin assuming roles of responsibility for solving local issues. This transition from volunteer to leader is smoother than might be expected, because the students bring skills and expertise in areas of technology that many established leaders in the community need but do not have.

The EAST model allows students to take ownership of both the challenges in their communities and the responsibility for seeking solutions. The students move beyond the theoretical exploration of issues and into active learning and service in the cause of bettering their communities. This model empowers students to become good citizens at a time in their lives when we know that they are beginning to adopt habits that will stay with them the rest of their lives. It teaches leadership in a natural way that does not focus on who is in charge as much as who has the needed skills, the passion, and the interest to solve the myriad problems. It teaches character development by putting a premium on learner-positive habits of person. Most importantly, it teaches all of these valuable life skills not by “teaching” them, but rather by allowing students to experience them in a safe environment (a facilitated classroom) where they can further their intellectual and personal development.

Students in this program have access to a wide variety of technologies to help them in their projects–from GIS/GPS applications, computer-aided drafting tools, and digital film tools, to high-end animation and web design tools, computer programming tools, virtual reality design tools, and so on. The EAST classroom is equipped with more than 65 different software applications in a student-maintained network of servers, workstations, and peripherals.

EAST recognition

Since its birth in 1995, the EAST program has gained support and recognition from groups and organizations in America and around the world. In its home state of Arkansas, EAST is heavily supported by the Arkansas Legislature and the Arkansas Department of Education, which is soon to publish the findings of a three-year scientific research study of EAST and its impact on student learning and motivation.

Preliminary results from the research have documented that EAST students have significantly improved in the areas of problem-solving skills, school motivation, and perceptions of their learning styles. In problem solving, EAST students score significantly better in the areas of problem identification, implementation, evaluation, and reorganization. In terms of school motivation, they score significantly better in effort and social concern. Statements such as, “The harder the problem, the harder I try,” and “I like to help others at school,” are indicative of the EAST students’ attitudes. EAST students are equally adept at working in groups and taking responsibility for self-directed learning. They feel significantly better than non-EAST students about their ability to explain their role in a group, take a leadership role in a group, and complete a project with limited assistance from others. When comparing the plans that EAST students have after they graduate with those of their peers from similar demographics, a statistically greater number of EAST students intend to attend college.

The U.S. Department of Education has named EAST a model program and included it in its National Education Technology Plan in 2004. But perhaps the greatest testament to the EAST model is the growth it has seen since it began as an experiment in 1995 in Greenbrier, Arkansas, with 20 at-risk students. Today, the program is flourishing in more than 170 schools in Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania.

The growth of the model has led to the formation of an educational nonprofit organization, the EAST Initiative, in 2001. The organization provides training and support to EAST facilitators and students and is headquartered in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Links:

EAST Initiative

http://www.eastinitiative.org

Star City Schools

http://www.starcityschools.com