Laptop theft puts 40,000 school employees at risk

Two laptop computers containing the names and Social Security numbers of about 40,000 current and former employees of the Chicago Public Schools were stolen from district headquarters April 6.

While school district officials promised tighter security, Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart said she’s “furious” about the breach that left employees vulnerable to identity theft.

“I’m furious, I’m outraged, and I’m disgusted,” Stewart said in a statement. “My members are once again victims of a lapse of security on the part of CPS.”

Stewart said the theft was the third security breach involving employees’ personal information in less than six months. In November, former employees’ identifying information was included in a mailing about health insurance. In January, employee W2 forms were distributed improperly, she said.

The laptops, which belong to an accounting firm and its subcontractor, contain the names and Social Security numbers of current and former CPS employees who contributed to the system’s Teacher Pension Fund from 2003 to 2006.

Schools CEO Arne Duncan on April 9 said the district plans to buy a year of credit and identity-theft protection for affected employees.

The district also offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or the recovery of the computers and was working closely with police as of press time,

Duncan said.

School Board President Rufus Williams said the district is making changes to reduce its reliance on Social Security numbers to track employees.

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Study: Testing firms ‘buckling’ under NCLB’s weight

To motivate juniors on last year’s assessment exams, central IllinoisSpringfield High School offered coveted lockers, parking spaces near the door, and free prom tickets as incentives for good scores. But the incentives went unclaimed until this March, when Illinois finally published its 2006 test scores–more than four months after they were due.

Critics pounced on Harcourt Assessment Inc., which lost most of its $44.5 million state contract over delays that made Illinois the last state in the nation to release scores used to judge schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But experts say the problems are more widespread and are likely to get worse. A handful of companies create, print, and score most of the tests in the U.S.–and they’re struggling with a workload that has exploded since President Bush signed the education reform package in 2002.

"The testing industry in the U.S. is buckling under the weight of NCLB demands," said Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank.

When Education Sector surveyed 23 states in 2006, it found 35 percent of testing offices in those states had experienced "significant" errors with scoring, and 20 percent didn’t get results "in a timely fashion."

Illinois saw more problems in March, when students took achievement tests that contained as many as 13 errors, officials said. But Illinois isn’t the only state that has experienced difficulties:

•Oregon‘s Education Department complained that a computerized test was plagued by system problems. Test company Vantage Learning later terminated its contract with the state, claiming it was owed money, and the state sued the company for breach of contract. Now, thousands of students who haven’t completed online exams will take them in May the old-fashioned way, using paper and pencil.

•Connecticut last year fined Harcourt $80,000 after a processing error caused wrong scores for 355 students in 2005. While that’s a fraction of the state’s 41,000 kids who took the test, state officials had to notify 51, or nearly a third, of all districts that some of their students got the wrong scores. The problem came a year after the state canceled its contract with another firm, CTB/McGraw-Hill, after scoring problems caused a five-month delay in reporting scores.

•The Texas Education Agency passed 4,160 10th-graders who initially failed the math section of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in 2003 after officials discovered a test question had more than one correct answer.

•Pearson Educational Measurement apologized last year after it reported more than 900,000 Michigan results weeks late. In 2003, previous vendor Measurement Inc. delivered 3,400 MEAP scores months late and nearly 1,000 results went missing.

The number of students tested has risen sharply since NCLB took effect. Illinois, for example, used to test only third, fifth, and eight graders but now tests students in third through eighth grades.

To meet NCLB requirements, states administered 45 million reading and math exams last spring. At the end of the 2007-08 school year, they will give about 56 million tests because they must add a science exam at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

What’s more, each state has its own test, and many want them customized, said Michael Hansen, chief executive officer of Harcourt Assessment, which no longer administers Illinois‘ tests but still is involved in developing and grading them.

"Not only [have] states wanted different content in terms of the tests, but they also have very many different requirements as to logistics, delivery, look and feel, color, how the questions are organized, horizontal, vertical … you name it, it was on the table," Hansen said.

On top of that, experts say, are rigid, NCLB-driven deadlines.

"That means March and April we are completely … at peak capacity, and so is every one of our competitors," Hansen said. "But also then when the test results come in, [schools] need the test results back as soon as possible … so the turnaround from the time that the test is taken, to [when] we need to report the results is extremely tight–and it’s getting tighter and tighter."

Others say the problems are exacerbated by little competition or regulation.

The NCLB testing industry is dominated by four companies: Harcourt of San Antonio, Texas; CTB/McGraw-Hill, based in Monterey, Calif.; Pearson Educational Measurement of Iowa City, Iowa, and Riverside Publishing of Itasca, Ill.

"It’s not entirely a monopoly, but it is an oligopoly, with very little regulation," said Walter Haney, professor at the Center for the Study of Testing Evaluation and Educational Policy at Boston College.

Both state education departments and testing companies are "overtaxed and bursting at the seams," said Becky Watts, former chief of staff at the Illinois State Board of Education.

From 2002 to 2008, states will spend between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion to develop, score, and report NCLB-required tests, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. However, states spend less than a quarter of 1 percent of school revenue–or $10 to $30 a student–on testing programs, even though federal, state, and local spending per pupil adds up to more than $8,000 a year, Toch said, adding: "That’s not enough to produce high-quality tests in the tight timelines that NCLB requires. It’s ludicrous."

The U.S. Department of Education must be more active, Toch said; instead, "Secretary [Margaret] Spellings has largely washed her hands of this problem, said it’s a state problem, which is a peculiar … response because it’s the federal government that has required the states to take these actions."

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Candidates’ MySpace pages reveal DOPA’s flaws

Presidential hopefuls Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul of Texas, both Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives, last year voted in favor of a bill that would have forced schools and libraries receiving federal funds to block access to MySpace and other social-networking web sites on their computers. So it seems odd, the American Library Association (ALA) contends, that the two lawmakers are among the 11 candidates who at press time had created personal profiles on a special section that MySpace has dedicated to the 2008 presidential election.

"It is kind of ironic," said Melanie Anderson, ALA’s assistant director for government relations. "We do think it’s interesting how many of the same politicians who support DOPA are using social-networking web sites in their own campaigns."

DOPA refers to the Deleting Online Predators Act, which passed in the House by a vote of 410 to 15 during the 109th Congress but did not reach a vote in the Senate. The bill would have amended the Communications Act of 1934 to require schools and libraries receiving federal eRate discounts on their internet services to enforce a policy that prohibits minors’ access to commercial social-networking web sites or chat rooms.

On March 18, MySpace–the largest and most popular such online destination, which is owned by News Corp., the parent company of the Fox Broadcasting Company–introduced a feature called the Impact Channel. The move marked the latest attempt by an internet company to educate voters by serving as an information hub for political candidates and the public. By clicking on http://impact.myspace.com, the site’s mostly young users can link to the personal pages, or "profiles," of Hunter, Paul, and at least nine other presidential hopefuls as of press time.

But if DOPA had become law, Anderson and others say, students likely couldn’t access any of the MySpace web pages devoted to the 2008 presidential candidates on their school computers–and library patrons probably would not have been able to find these pages, either.

The apparent contradiction points to the difficulty faced by lawmakers and educators as they try to protect children and teens from the dangers lurking in cyberspace. It also underscores the problems that can occur when lawmakers–many of whom have a limited understanding of internet issues–seek to legislate behavior in the Information Age.

In February, Illinois Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican, introduced essentially the same legislation into the 110th Congress under bill number H.R. 1120. And in January, powerful Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, also a Republican, introduced the Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act. That bill, which seeks to curb online child pornography by calling for stiffer penalties for service providers who fail to report pornography depicting minors, also contains a near carbon copy of the original DOPA language.

Social-networking web sites such as MySpace give predatory adults the opportunity to stalk and, in some cases, meet with naïve teens, proponents of the bills say. Using social-networking sites, pedophiles reportedly have coerced the full names, locations, and other personally identifiable details out of several unsuspecting children.

Despite the legislation’s purportedly good intentions, many educators say the far-reaching language of these bills would prohibit classroom teachers from creating lessons that explore the benefits of social networking. Instead of banning outright the use of such technologies in the classroom, critics say, a more reasonable approach would be for educators to teach students how to use these resources safely and responsibly, while leaving the decision whether to block access to these sites at school to local administrators.

Kirk’s and Stevens’ bills do include an exception that would allow use of MySpace and other social-networking web sites "for an educational purpose with adult supervision." But many educators believe this exception means little from a practical standpoint.

Jon Bernstein, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist for ed-tech groups on Capitol Hill, said it isn’t likely that educators would have the time, or the patience, to take advantage of this exception.

Educators would have to submit requests to their technology departments to remove such sites temporarily from their schools’ list of blocked sites. Then, they would have to supervise each student as he or she used these resources. Under this scenario, it’s unlikely any 17-year-old without home internet access would be able to use MySpace’s new Impact Channel, for example, to research or connect with presidential candidates on his or her own time.

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Judge strikes down web pornography law

A federal judge on March 22 dealt another blow to government efforts to control internet pornography, striking down a 1998 U.S. law that makes it a crime for commercial web site operators to let children access "harmful" material online.

In his ruling, the judge said parents and teachers can protect their children through software filters and other less restrictive means that do not limit the rights of others to free speech.

"Perhaps we do the minors of this country harm if First Amendment protections, which they will with age inherit fully, are chipped away in the name of their protection," wrote U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed Jr., who presided over the trial last fall.

The law would have criminalized web sites that allow children to access material deemed "harmful to minors" by "contemporary community standards." The sites would have been expected to require a credit card number or other proof of age. Penalties included a $50,000 fine and up to six months in prison.

Sexual health sites, the online magazine Salon.com, and other web sites backed by the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law. They argued that the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) was unconstitutionally vague and would have had a chilling effect on speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a temporary injunction in 2004 on grounds that the law was likely to be struck down and was perhaps outdated (see High Court strikes down web porn law: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=5135).

Technology experts say parents and educators now have more serious concerns than web sites with pornography. For instance, the threat of online predators has caused worries among parents whose children use social-networking sites such as News Corp.’s MySpace.

The case sparked a legal firestorm last year when internet search giant Google Inc. challenged a Justice Department subpoena seeking information on what people search for online. Government lawyers had asked Google to turn over 1 million random web addresses and a week’s worth of Google search queries (see Google search probe pits online privacy vs. web safety: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=6150).

A judge sharply limited the scope of the subpoena, which Google had fought on trade secret, not privacy, grounds. Aiming to ease privacy concerns, however, Google–which keeps logs of all searches, along with digital identifiers linking them to specific computers and internet browsers–recently said it would start to make those logs anonymous after 18 to 24 months, making it much harder to connect search records to a specific person.

To defend the nine-year-old COPA, government lawyers attacked software filters as burdensome and less effective, even though they have previously defended their use in public schools and libraries.

"It is not reasonable for the government to expect all parents to shoulder the burden to cut off every possible source of adult content for their children, rather than the government’s addressing the problem at its source," said government attorney Peter D. Keisler.

Critics of the law argued that filters work best, because they let parents set limits based on their own values and their child’s age.

The law addressed material accessed by children under 17, but it applied only to content hosted in the United States.

The web sites that challenged the law said fear of prosecution might lead them to shut

the Justice Department could do more to enforce obscenity laws already on the books.

The 1998 law followed Congress’s unsuccessful 1996 effort to ban online pornography. The Supreme Court in 1997 deemed key portions of that law unconstitutional because it was too vague and trampled on adults’ rights. The newer law narrowed the restrictions to commercial web sites and defined indecency more specifically.

In 2000, Congress passed a law requiring schools and libraries to use software filters if they receive federal eRate funds. The high court upheld that law, called the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), in 2003.

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Latest data security risk for schools: Copiers

As schools take steps to protect the security of data on their computer networks, experts warn they also should consider securing copiers and scanners that could be used to copy sensitive information.

 

Most digital copiers manufactured in the past five years have disk drives–the same kind of data-storage mechanism found in computers–to reproduce documents. As a result, the seemingly innocuous machines that are commonly used to spit out copies of student records, tests, and employee information can retain the data being scanned.

 

If the data on a copier’s disk aren’t protected with encryption or an overwrite mechanism, and if someone with malicious motives has access to the machine, industry experts say sensitive information from original documents could get into the wrong hands.

 

Some copier makers are now adding security features, but many of the digital machines already found in schools or business offices still are open targets, said Ed McLaughlin, president of Sharp Document Solutions Company of America .

 

Sharp issued a warning about photocopier vulnerabilities in conjunction with tax season–but it isn’t just people who make copies of their tax returns who are at risk, the company said.

 

"Schools are probably the most vulnerable" institutions, said Mike Marusic, Sharp’s vice president of marketing, in an interview with <em>eSchool News</em>.

 

In many cases, Marusic said, a central administrative or IT department monitors an entire school’s or district’s copiers using each machine’s Internet Protocol (IP) address.

 

"What people don’t realize is that, because [the copiers are] managed remotely, other people [might] have access to [them]," he said.

 

Schools can take action in several ways, Marusic said. One option is to close IP ports. When a copier is being installed in a school, he explained, the IT staff should close IP ports to ensure there is only one access point to the machine. In addition, schools can use media access control (MAC) filtering, which corresponds to a MAC address–the unique number on each computer. IT staff can tell a copier or printer to accept commands only from specified MAC addresses, Marusic said, meaning outside access by hackers is restricted.

 

Many schools employ these methods to keep their networks secure, Marusic said–but they might not think of protecting their copy machines. "IP port closure is becoming more and more common," he said.

 

Many schools place a copier’s IP address on the front of the machine for convenience in case of troubleshooting, Marusic said–but putting the address in such a prominent location makes it easy for anyone (such as an outside maintenance worker or a student in the office) to see it, write it down, and then access the machine from another location.

 

And schools should not cull students from the list of those who might try to access sensitive information.

 

"Students are naturally inquisitive about their programming capabilities, and where there’s a will, there’s a way," Marusic said.

 

Sharp commissioned a consumer survey that indicated more than half of Americans did not know copiers carried this data security risk. The telephone survey of 1,005 adults, conducted in January, also showed that 55 percent of Americans planned to make photocopies and printouts of their tax returns and related documents.

 

Although industry and security experts were unable to point to any known incidents of identity thieves using copiers to steal information, they agreed the potential was real.

"It is a valid concern, and most people don’t know about it," said Keith Kmetz, an analyst at market research firm IDC. "Copying wasn’t like this before."

Daniel Katz-Braunschweig, a chief consultant at Data|XL, a business consulting firm, includes digital copiers among his list of data holes that institutions should try to protect. He couldn’t specify names, but he said a few of his corporate clients learned about the vulnerability after their copiers were resold and the new owners–in good faith–notified them of the data residing on the disks.

 

Sharp was among the first to begin offering, a few years ago, a security kit for its machines to encrypt and overwrite the images being scanned, so that data aren’t stored on the hard disks indefinitely. Xerox Corp. in October said it would start making a similar security feature standard across all of its digital copiers.

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FCC mulls broadband service over TV airwaves

A new method of delivering broadband internet access to millions of Americans has the potential to expand greatly the number of students with broadband service at home–and it could provide a cheaper way for schools in remote areas to get online. But the method faces steep regulatory hurdles before it can become available.

Microsoft, Google, and other technology firms are bumping into resistance from television broadcasters as they seek regulatory approval to deliver high-speed internet service over unused TV airwaves.

The technology companies, which have submitted a prototype device to the Federal Communications Commission for testing, say their aim is to make broadband internet connections accessible and affordable to millions more Americans.

Broadcasters, though, fear the unproven device could interfere with TV service, and even some technology experts have reservations about how well the device will actually perform. Matters could get even more complicated, broadcasters say, when the industry switches from analog to digital signals in 2009.

At the center of this dispute are unused and unlicensed TV airwaves, part of the spectrum known as "white spaces." These white spaces are located between channels 2 and 51 on televisions that are not hooked up to satellite or cable, though use of these services would not preclude anyone from accessing the internet over unused spectrum in their region.

"This is some prime spectrum real estate," said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a national, nonpartisan public interest research group, which supports using the public airwaves for internet service.

In a nutshell, the technology companies want to beam internet access through the white space and into computers and mobile devices. And they argue rural Americans would benefit greatly, because the technology enables internet service to remote areas at a fraction of the cost of cable- and telephone-based subscription services.

"This is Wi-Fi on steroids," Scott said.

Scott Blake Harris, an attorney representing a loose coalition of technology companies that typically compete with one another, said he believes the FCC should authorize this technology as long as its proponents can prove it will not disrupt TV programming.

But broadcasters want the FCC to proceed cautiously.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)–which represents more than a thousand local TV stations, as well as major broadcasters such as Walt Disney Co.’s ABC division–insists the industry is not against the new technology, only worried about unintended consequences.

"If [the technology companies] are wrong, once those devices get introduced, that means that people won’t be able to get clear television pictures," said NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton.

Shure Inc., a manufacturer of wireless microphones, also has expressed concerns, saying use of white spaces for internet service could cause interference with audio systems at concerts and sporting events.

Potential pitfalls aside, proponents of the new technology–including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Philips Electronics–say it could spur innovation.

Paul Brownell, a government relations manager at Dell, said white-space spectrum could be used to stream video and audio throughout a school or home without running wires all over the place. The company is interested in building computers that would come preprogrammed to recognize internet service delivered via white space.

"These are all on the drawing board right now," he said, assuming the FCC approves unlicensed usage of white spaces.

Advocates say the white-space spectrum is too valuable to be left idle, because the television airwaves can transmit better signal quality through obstacles and to a wider geographic area. In rural areas, the new technology is an attractive alternative to phone, cable, or satellite-based internet service, because it would not require expensive new infrastructure to be built.

The lack of infrastructure is a key reason many rural areas lack high-speed internet service. A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project found that only 30 percent of rural residents have high-speed internet, compared with 49 percent for suburban residents and 52 percent for urban Americans.

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Microsoft sues student software resellers

Aiming to stop the diversion of software from education, software giant Microsoft Corp. has filed five lawsuits against U.S. companies and individuals, claiming they purchased deeply discounted Windows and Office software intended for use by students and sold it to retail customers at retail prices.

The company filed the suits April 2 in federal courts in California, Nevada, and Florida, alleging the parties infringed on Microsoft’s copyright by importing and distributing versions of Windows and Office that were not meant to be sold through the retail channel.

"The defendants in these lawsuits … are charged with profiting from selling clearly marked educational software to unsuspecting retail customers who were not licensed to use it–potentially depriving students and schools of the opportunity to benefit from the latest technologies," Bonnie MacNaughton, senior attorney at Microsoft, said in a statement.

Named in the lawsuits are EEE Business Inc., doing business as eBusZone.com; Eric Chan and Ruhui Li, both doing business as LCTech; and Intrax Group Inc. of California. Also named were Global Online Distribution LLC of Las Vegas and Big Boy Distribution of Florida.

"We’re not selling counterfeit or stolen software," said Mike Mak, owner of Intrax, which is based in Santa Clara, Calif. "We bought software from legitimate sources in the U.S."

Mak said his company sold the discounted "Student Media" software, but stopped after it learned about the lawsuit.

"When we sell it, we disclose exactly what it is to our customers. We tell them it is academic software, that it may require a separate license," Mak said. He said that as far as he’s concerned, that’s not illegal.

He added that it’s impossible for his business to sell boxed retail versions of Microsoft software and still make a profit. Instead, he said, "you try to seek out alternatives that are legal," including Student Media programs.

Dale Harelik, managing director of Global Online Distribution, said his company has never sold the discounted, students-only software. He said the company received a cease-and-desist letter from Microsoft in January, and that he spoke by phone with the software maker’s lawyers, who assured him Global Online Distribution was not a target of an ongoing investigation.

"We’re not the bad guys," Harelik said. "We agreed with Microsoft. We complied with Microsoft."

Lillian Shan, a manager at EEE Business, said the company had not seen the legal filings and did not want to comment without having reviewed them. Big Boy Distribution did not return a call for comment.

Microsoft has pinpointed a handful of companies, including one in Jordan and one in Latvia, as sources for the discounted Student Media software sold illegally on U.S. web sites, MacNaughton said in an interview April 2.

These education-only copies of Office and Windows, which universities around the world buy from academic resellers and offer to students at a fraction of the retail price, are a prime target for fraud, MacNaughton said, adding: "We knew we had to try to do something to maintain the integrity of our academic programs."

Microsoft also said that EDirect-Software.com, which it claimed was one of the largest sellers of the discounted student software, agreed to settle out of court for more than $1 million in cash and property. EDirectSoftware.com said it no longer sells Microsoft products and would not comment on the settlement.

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School’s computer choice is un-PC

In a reversal of a recent trend, Wilkes University in Pennsylvania has become one of the first college campuses in the country to begin a university-wide switch from Windows-based PCs to Apple Inc.’s new Intel-based Macintosh computers.

Over the next three years, Wilkes will become an all-Mac campus–providing faculty and students with access to Mac-only offerings, such as iLife and Mac OS X, as well as Windows applications through the use of software "virtualization" technology and Apple’s forthcoming Boot Camp software, which will let Mac users run Microsoft’s Windows operating system on their computers.

Macintosh computers traditionally have been less susceptible to viruses and other security concerns than Windows PCs, but they also generally have cost more than PCs with comparable features. In addition, there is a wider selection of software written for Windows-based computers, which have become the machines of choice for many in the business world. For these reasons, a growing number of schools and districts have been phasing out Macs and moving toward Windows PCs in recent years, abandoning a platform that has its roots in education.

Wilkes University‘s decision could signal the beginning of a shift in this trend. The school’s plan was aided by Apple’s recent decision to use Intel microprocessors in its Macintosh computers, which enables users to run Windows on Apple machines because PCs and Macs now share the same components.

The move to standardize on Apple computers could save Wilkes University more than $150,000 while letting students and faculty continue to run Windows applications, school officials claim.

The ability of the new Macs to run Windows "means we still have access to any Windows programs," said Scott Byers, vice president for finance and general counsel at Wilkes University. "We’re making working and learning more efficient. It’s the best of both worlds."

Nearly all Wilkes University computer labs already are equipped with the new Macintosh computers, and the school expects to replenish its computer network with Macs over the next three years. The switch to an all-Mac campus is a $1.4 million investment in campus technology.

Before the move, Windows-based computers made up the majority of machines in the school’s computer labs and administrative offices. University officials said about 15 percent of campus computers were Macs.

As of press time, more than 500 Macs had been installed, and the university plans to install a total of 1,450 Apple computers on campus in the next few years.

Switching from Windows to Macs will enable the school to have about 250 fewer computers on campus, Byers said, because a combination of Macintosh and Windows computers no longer will be necessary.

"This is an aggressive technology refresh plan that will present students and staff with access to the latest technology," said Byers. "We’re also creating a virtually virus-free IT network."

"The opportunity to learn both operating systems in one machine is immeasurable," added Chris Vida, founder of Vida Works Advertising, Marketing and Design.

Last spring, Apple introduced a test version of Boot Camp, a program that lets Mac users run Windows on their Macintosh computers as long as they already own a copy of Windows. Apple executives say they plan to incorporate Boot Camp into the next version of the Macintosh operating system, Mac OS X v10.6.4.

Users also can turn to other software, such as Parallels Desktop for Mac, that will allow them to run Mac OS X and Windows on an Apple computer simultaneously. In addition, CodeWeavers Inc. has created Wine, software that lets users run Windows applications on a Mac without requiring them to install the Microsoft operating system.

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Engineering field has designs for women

To help encourage more girls to choose engineering as a career, female engineers from across the country reached out to students and educators March 22-23 during the "Global Marathon for, by, and about Women in Engineering," a live, 24-hour webcast sponsored by computer manufacturer Lenovo and hosted by Verizon Business. Most sessions will be available via a web archive.

Sally Ride, former NASA astronaut and the first U.S. woman in space, kicked off the event with her remarks. "I think it’s important for … all the women who are in science and engineering who love it and have had fulfilling careers to transmit that message to the girls growing up, to tell them this is really interesting stuff," Ride said.

K-12 and college students, along with teachers, counselors, and parents, participated in the webcast and had a chance to ask questions of women engineers around the world, from the United States to locations such as Egypt and Germany.

Sessions featured topics such as "Live Your Life, Love What You Do: Talking to High School Girls About Engineering," "Why Engineering is Fun," and "Advancing the Pipeline of Women in Engineering: What You Can Do to Help Recruit and Retain Female Undergraduates."

A common theme throughout the webcast was the need to change girls’ perceptions of what they can do–and what engineering is all about.

During her half-hour session, Heather Johnston Nicholson, director of research for Girls Inc., discussed findings from "The Supergirl Dilemma: Girls Grapple with the Mounting Pressure of Expectations," a follow-up to Girls Inc.’s 2000 survey on girls and society.

"Girls don’t get less smart; once you know you’re good at math and science and like it, that’s going to be the way it stays," she said. "Math, science, technology, and engineering are not closed to girls–they can find [an interest in these subjects] later as well as earlier, but the earlier the better."

The survey found that 35 percent of girls in grades 3-12 said they believe it’s true people don’t think girls are effective leaders. While that’s down from 47 percent in 2000, it’s still too high, Nicholson said.

"Even today, society values beauty in girls over intelligence and talent," said one ninth-grade girl quoted in the report.

Nicholson suggested that parents and adults listen to what their daughters and other girls around them are saying and to redefine notions of femininity and masculinity.

"Lots of women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] professions are fun, cool people," she said. Adults not only should advocate for gender awareness in school systems, but also should help girls see math and science everywhere in their lives and debunk the myth that girls and boys are hardwired for different career paths and different academic strengths, she added.

Citing 2005 statistics from the American Society for Engineering Education, Julie Trenor, director of undergraduate student recruitment and retention at the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering, said only 17.5 percent of the undergraduate engineering students in the United States are women. If the U.S. is to remain competitive with other countries in the engineering field, she said, it will have to find better ways to encourage women to join the profession.

A 2003 study by the University of Michigan‘s Institute for Research on Women and Gender found that women choose other careers in part because they don’t see engineering as a way to help others. The study, conducted over 17 years, followed Michigan students from 6th grade through college and beyond.

Engineering provides "many opportunities for learning, and since technology is constantly changing, it keeps things exciting. There is much more to computer engineering than just sitting at a desk typing on a computer all day," said software developer Tam Cummings, another webcast contributor.

To be successful in STEM fields, technical skills aren’t the only things students will need. "Once in the workforce, communication and people skills prove to be essential," Cummings said. "Engineering organizations are a good way to acquire and hone such skills."

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Parents, kids call for more tech use in schools

For the second year in a row, students and teachers who responded to a national survey on educational technology expressed a strong desire for schools to focus more on the integration of technology and real-world problem solving into math and science classes. In addition, more than two-thirds of parents said they are unsatisfied with the amount of time their children are using technology in school, and an overwhelming 97 percent of students–but just over half of teachers–say they think cell phones should be allowed in school for emergencies and for connecting with parents.

The findings of the fourth annual Speak Up survey, released at a Congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., on March 21, collected ideas and views from more than 270,000 K-12 students and 21,000 teachers from all 50 states. For the first time, the survey also included parents, and some 15,000 parents took part.

The study shows that students want to learn math and science through real-world problem solving, visiting places where they can view science in action, and talking with professionals in the fields. Teachers also believe that teaching these subjects within the context of real-world problems is the most effective method, but a key challenge is that there is not enough instructional time to teach science, they say.

According to the survey, students cited communication as their No. 1 use of technology. "They are very interested in not only communicating among themselves, but also with students all around the world," said Julie Evans, chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow (formerly NetDay), the survey’s sponsor.

Students are increasingly connecting with their peers from other towns, states, and even countries through applications such as instant messaging, the survey shows. Many refer to these people who they have never met as their friends. "This new online connectedness is redefining the definition of the word ‘friend,’" said Evans.

One area of concern that stood out in the survey was the decline in interest among students in pursuing a career in science, engineering, mathematics, or technology (STEM). Eighty-six percent of students in kindergarten through second grade said they were interested in specific STEM-related careers. But starting in third grade, that interest begins to wane. More than a third of third- through 12th-graders said they were no longer interested in pursuing a STEM career.

Another issue that surfaced was the availability of technology in schools.

"In terms of obstacles to using technology, [students in the] younger grades tell us there is not much access," said Evans. "They don’t have enough computers, or [the machines] are difficult to get to. In older grades, it’s all about control. They want to have the rules and regulations over technology more relaxed and want to have more control over when they can use computers."

This years’ study introduced a new aspect in surveying parents to see how their views on school technology differ from those of their children and teachers. "We wanted to bring their voice into the national discussion," said Evans.

More than half (55 percent) of parents responding believe their children will need a good understanding of math and science to be successful in the 21st century. Thirty-seven percent of parents say they are worried about the impact of global job competition on their children and the fact that their children might have to compete with better-educated students, and 31 percent believe their children are going to need more than a four-year degree to get a good job.

Although the study suggests more than half of parents surveyed are satisfied with the amount of technology in their children’s schools, there is a deep concern over how high a priority is placed on its use. More than two-thirds of parents said they are unsatisfied with the amount of time their children are spending using technology in school and how well this technology is being integrated into core academic subjects.

In addition, 41 percent of parents said they wanted information about their children’s grades sent directly to them via eMail, as opposed to having to go to the school’s web site for this information or receive it via traditional printed bulletins.

Here are some other results from the survey:

&#149;97 percent of students think cell phones should be allowed at school for emergencies and connecting with parents, compared with 77 percent of parents and just 56 percent of teachers.

&#149;53 percent of students in grades K-12 use video games on a weekly basis. Girls are just as likely to be playing as boys until high school.

&#149;75 percent of teachers believe the use of technology in schoolwork has resulted in increased student performance and achievement.

&#149;One-fourth of students are eMailing their teachers, and one-third are interested in taking an online class.

&#149;When asked how well they think their school is preparing students for working in the 21st century, 48 percent of parents and 47 percent of teachers said well. More than 50 percent of parents said not well.

&#149;41 percent of teachers have used lessons plans they found online, and 46 percent have modified lesson plans they found online. Thirty-eight percent have used ideas they found online to shape their own lesson plans.

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