Arkadelphia teacher takes new approach to education

By Wayne Bryan Published December 8, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Bud McMillion is a teacher in the Arkadelphia Public School District, but he is also the “Thought Partner” of Cheryl Merk, the Arkadelphia High School assistant principal. McMillion’s partner post is one of the roles he has in the New Tech Network program of teaching at the school. The New Tech Network provides a different learning experience for students, putting the responsibility on them to be active and involved with teachers and other students.

For the past two years, a new way of teaching students has developed at Arkadelphia High School.

Using what they call the New Tech Network, teams of teachers, including Bud McMillion, are taking a different approach to education.

“The traditional way of teaching is to stand up in front of the class and talk, the students take notes, and then you take a test,” McMillion said. “We are teaching our students how to think. A team teaches collaboratively, and the students learn by solving problems.”

When the New Tech program was implemented at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, the high school was one of only 10 schools in Arkansas to offer the state-initiated program, and a new teaching program was being invented.

Assistant Principal Cheryl Merk, who directs the New Tech program at Arkadelphia High, said McMillion has a unique position with the program.

“He is my Thought Partner,” she said. “Every new idea that comes up will affect the teachers, and Mr. McMillion gives the teachers’ perspective on each idea,” she said. “He has input on everything.”

McMillion said he likes that system.

“That is something I like about the New Tech program; the teachers are involved,” he said. “We can bounce ideas around, and teachers can supply a reality check on some of the ideas.”

McMillion said that with the program in its second year, half the student population is now involved in a totally different way of learning.

“We give students a problem, and they work together to find a solution,” he said. “As they get to something they don’t know, they ask us. Then they are more receptive. A student that is asking a question is ready to learn.”

It is also the end of the era when teachers are supposed to know everything. Students now have other resources, and kids will look on the Internet and weed out the garbage and find out what works.

McMillion and the other teachers in the program are working to instill a new culture for the classroom. He said it is one that places more responsibility on the student to stay engaged with the class and work hard as part of a team to meet deadlines.

Merk said the new way of thinking about learning is closer to the corporate culture students might encounter in their careers.

McMillion said he teaches four of the New Tech classes, and each class has worked on three programs since the beginning of the school year.

“One class is working on a puzzle made from wood that can be worked by first-graders,” he said. “They are designing and making the puzzle. Then they will be learning to market it by taking it to the first-grade classes, explaining how the puzzle can be worked out and seeing if the younger kids can do it.”

The classes have already been involved in real-world projects with a local industry.

“One class last year worked with Danfoss (Small Technologies of Arkadelphia) with their air-conditioning compressors,” McMillion explained. “The factory made a part that was just a little bit off in its manufacturing, and the students had to test it and make an analysis of how it was off and correct it.”

The teacher said that this year, a class will be working on a tool the company can use to clean out a port in a part that can become clogged during the manufacturing process.

Other New Tech students are building model cars driven by electricity, while another group is trying to develop some way to keep people from texting while driving.

“One class is inventing something new,” McMillion said. “They are looking for a need and then solving the problem to meet that need.”

An Arkadelphia native, McMillion is the son of two teachers.

“Dad was a shop teacher for the junior high school, and my mother was a science teacher in junior high,” he said. “It takes a special person to teach kids that age. I tried it for a year, and I have high respect for anyone who does it now.”

McMillion said he wanted to be a wildlife biologist and do research out in nature, but he admits he was not really cut out for the tedium and sameness of detailed research.

He studied biology at Hendrix College in Conway, and his first job out of school was helping to run the electron microscope at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.

He said he got involved in a research program but left after a year.

By that time, he had already decided to become a teacher. While he was raised by teachers, it took a summer in California for him to discover that education was his calling as well.

“I grew up with my parents working in summer camps, and I had learned to ride a horse when I was 14,” McMillion said. “When I was in college, I worked at a farm and ranch in California teaching horseback riding, and Ross Jameson, who ran the camp, taught me that the most important thing was not what I was teaching — it was the people I taught.”

McMillion said it is all in the approach, such as with using a computer. Both teachers and students can get caught up in what a computer can do and the problems that can come up along the way. When the focus is on the computer, the important part of learning might be lost.

“The computer is a tool,” McMillion said. “It is important because it is a link to a larger world, and it can be used to build success, but it’s a tool, not an end unto itself.”

While at Hendrix, McMillion met his future wife, Amanda. They were married after he graduated, and she was a junior at Hendrix.

After working with the microscope for a year, he taught physics and chemistry in Cedar Hill, Pea Ridge and Malvern.

Along with the New Tech classes he has now, he also teaches a special engineering class at the high school.

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

As head of a team of students building a robot for a competition, McMillion said, he is able to link everything from the science of robots and artificial intelligence with literature and philosophy.

“The robotics class had to read “Run Around,” a science-fiction short story by Isaac Asimov, which is the basis of the movie I Robot, McMillion said. “After reading this famous story, I have them write about the possibility that someday robots could be alive enough to have rights.”

McMillion said the assignment led students to try and define “alive,” and to consider ideas that had nothing to do with the science of building a robot.

McMillion said he believes the graduates of the New Tech course will be different from traditional students.

“I hope we produce students who can learn on their own and who want to learn,” McMillion said. “They will be able to work better with others and to understand the importance of being part of something bigger than themselves.”

Arkadelphia High School Principal David Maxwell has said that with New Tech, the teachers and administration are trying to prepare the students for the next 10 years, through high school graduation and college and into the early years of their careers.

Merk said it will take teachers like McMillion and his ability to try something new and to open students up to challenging ideas to make that kind of preparation possible.

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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