Freshmen enter New Tech classes at AHS

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published December 6, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated December 5, 2012 at 10:36 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

From the left, Andrew Diehl and Colby Bagwell measure a bar of soap while Katy Dickerson and Madeline Wallace record the measurements. The group, in Arkadelphia High School’s New Tech program, is creating a digital model of the soap.

— It was not only incoming freshmen who had to adapt to a new environment when Arkadelphia High School opened for a new school year. Their teachers had a big learning curve as well.

As one of only 10 schools in Arkansas to offer the state-initiated New Tech program; students, teachers and administrators had to adapt to a new way of learning. Even the building underwent some changes as classrooms were remodeled to accommodate larger classes, team-based class work and technology-based education.

“We are teaching students for the post-secondary education world, not just continuing the way things were done in elementary school,” Principal David Maxwell said.” We don’t have students in desks all in a row. A class may look like an anthill with people moving around, but it’s a good thing. The movement is high with purpose, and that makes a difference.”

Students sit around large tables and work as teams in an effort to simulate the fast-paced atmosphere of colleges or the workplace.

Assistant Principal Cheryl Merk, who is also director of the New Tech program at the school, said the new teaching technique is based on project-based learning.

“Students want to learn things that are relevant to their lives,” she said. “When a student is asking a question, that is when learning is taking place.”

While 60 percent of a student’s grade will be on how well they have learned the subjects covered in each class, there are also other factors involved, Merk said.

“We are teaching critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration with others,” she said. “These are the skills that are vital to success in life after high school.”

In addition, Merk said, New Tech is trying to instill a new culture for the classroom that places more responsibility on the student to stay engaged with the class and work as part of a team to meet deadlines. Again, the new culture is being devised to create an environment more like a corporate culture students might encounter in their careers.

Teachers and students are finding the new classroom atmosphere more engaging and exciting.

“This is harder on the A students,” Merk said. “Being forced to work in a group may be new to them but is the way it is in real life.”

This arrangement helps all the students, Principal Maxwell said.

“We have life-achieving students, blue-collar students and students with lower expectations,” he said. “I am not above hoping peer pressure helps them all do better and learn more in class and about life.”

The principal also advocates giving students a wider range of knowledge in diverse areas of interest.

“I want engineering students to take welding. It will make them better engineers,” he said. “I want students who take welding classes to also study engineering because they never know what they will be asked to do in the years ahead.”

Maxwell said he thinks nine out of 10 of this year’s ninth-graders “get it” — that they understand how this teaching method will better prepare them for a successful career.

The new program is dependent on technology to keep students engaged, to help them in communicating with their teachers and each other, and to turn in their work, using a computer platform called Echo.

Each Arkadelphia High School freshman received a school-issued laptop computer that is for use on campus and at home. Textbooks are now e-books found on their computers.

Merk said that while students chat with each other about their classes and projects, they are also learning “what is an appropriate use of the tools available through technology.”

The work and chats are not only monitored by their teachers but by the students’ parents as well.

“Parents can follow along with the classes and can tell if their student is turning in their work,” Sean Ruggles, communications director of the Arkadelphia Public School District, said during a tour of classes. “Parents can see how their students are performing.”

One of the combined classes is GeoDesign class, paring engineering and geometry. It is taught by engineering teacher Bud McMillion and James Williams, a veteran mathematics teacher.

Arkadelphia has offered engineering classes for a number of years.

“That is why I came back to Arkadelphia to teach,” McMillion said.

As the class of around 40 students sitting at tables started their work, the class greeter, 14-year-old Tyler Freeman, explained the current project.

“We are designing a bar of soap out of biodiesel waste,” he said. “We are measuring an existing bar of soap, and we will put those measurements into a CAD (computer assisted design) program, and that will be used make a mold to pour the new soap.”

As the measurements were being made, McMillion reminded the students to use the technology available.

“Don’t write this information down on a sheet of paper. Use your engineer’s notebook on your computer so your project will be complete,” he said. “If you put it on paper, you will lose it.”

Earlier in the year, the students designed a smartphone case that included an ID-card holder.

Williams, who has taught at the school for 28 years, said he likes the new class because of the way it “places more responsibility on the student instead of all the learning being driven by the teacher.”

When it comes to teaching the geometry used in the class, Williams admits he does most of the teaching in the traditional way, writing out formulas as he stands in front of the class.

“The class teaches students that technology is not just for entertainment,” Ruggles said. “They learn technology is something useful in life.”

If a New Tech student is absent, he or she can access the Internet and receive assignments and continue to work with their groups in free time.”

The use of Internet and mobile-communications technology has undergone a great deal of change in the last year in the school. It has gone from being forbidden to almost mandatory.

“In 2009, we had rules straight out of 1988, when they thought if a student carried a beeper, he was a drug dealer,” Maxwell said. “Now we expect students to have their smartphone device with them.”

The principal said his own sixth-grader has a phone.

“I expect him to have it with him so I can get in touch with him,” Maxwell said.

Students can access the Internet to help them with class work. That goes not only for New Tech students but for all AHS students. Students who want to use laptops can request one from the school.

Ruggles said non-New Tech students have a different user platform, but the use of the computer as an always-available study aid is much the same.

“Of course, we still have rules about proper use of the phone,” Maxwell said. “We have taken only two phones this year, out of 600 kids. If they want to text and Facebook at lunch and between classes, that’s fine.”

The principal said that with New Tech, the teachers and administration are trying to prepare students for the next 10 years. Maxwell said he wants the program to prepare the students for high school and college and through a couple of years in the workforce.

“We must get out of the teaching models developed in the 1940s and 1950s,” he said. “Probably 51 percent of the jobs this class will find haven’t been invented yet.

“We have a chance here to do better to educate young people. If we can, south Arkansas will be able to grow and prosper.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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