Educators: Program equips students ‘to rival Silicon Valley’

Last updated: May 21. 2014 7:04PM - 2031 Views
By - mflomer@civitasmedia.com

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ELLERBE — The key to teaching lies in “hiding the broccoli in the mashed potatoes,” according to Jeff Epps, Richmond County Schools’ director of informational technology.

A new 3-D modelling program is kicking mathematics into high gear for Richmond County’s middle schools. The program, funded by a grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation, allows students to experience three essential elements of learning.

“It’s all about consumption, manipulation and creation,” said Epps. “Consumption is what students are doing when they read textbooks, listen to teachers in class or watch instructional videos. But that’s only the first step. Manipulation follows, and that’s what happens in the 3-D theater. It’s when students get to visualize what they just consumed. In this case, using special glasses and equipment purchased with the grant funds, they get to manipulate that information, move it around and interact with it.”

The third phase — creation — is a student’s ability to apply the data learned during consumption and experienced during manipulation. This is where information becomes a created product. Products always include solutions to mathematical problems, and it all looks suspiciously like engineering.

“It’s very much a foundation for engineering,” Epps said. “We’re not trying to raise the bar; we are the bar. If we want industry to return to Richmond County, we have to be able to say to them ‘You need engineers, and we have them.’ You have to have a work force to support them.”

Epps envisions a future when Richmond County produces graduating classes that are ready for highly technical careers fresh out of high school. That, he believes, will attract the kinds of modern industries needed to make the county a place its young people will want to call home permanently.

“We’re going to rival RTP (Research Triangle Park,)” Epps said. “We’re going to rival Silicon Valley. We’re going to best them all, so they’d better watch out.”

Academy facilitator Karen Criswell works with a target group of sixth-grade students at Ellerbe Middle School. Her position is funded by the grant. She is stationed at Ellerbe Middle School full-time and devotes her energies to guiding students through their work in the 3-D lab.

“After watching them (the students) work with the program, the greatest thing about it is they get to work at their own pace,” said Criswell. “Each lesson has a math problem they have to work out before moving on to the next thing. Students can be dependent and ask ‘how do I do it?,’ and I say ‘go back to the video, watch it again. Put on your headphones.’ Each student has a progress monitoring journal. They sign off for every project they complete and they are accountable for their learning.”

The projects are supplied by Indian software company Designmate, a firm specializing in “3-D animated content for K-12 curriculums,” according to the company’s website.

“In the lab, students are solving mathematical problems using 3-D software,” Epps said. “These problems are aligned with the Common Core standards. Before starting up in March, we consulted with Kelly DeLong who is the curriculum specialist. She approved all the content we created for implementing our program.”

Epps explained that the target group was sixth-graders across the district, because as a population, they demonstrated common areas of weakness on a recent state benchmark test. Those weak areas were ratios, number systems and geometry. Students who did not pass the benchmark are expected to benefit most from the 3-D program.

“We hope people will say ‘Wow. We see some growth here,’” Epps said, adding that all middle schools in the district had adopted the 3-D modelling program except for Rohanen Middle School, which opted out.

Students selected for the program work with Criswell during their regularly scheduled intervention and enrichment block from 11:30 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. daily.

James Grace is the first student in Criswell’s group to complete all of the 3-D lab projects. He now has the privilege of using the software to create whatever he wants.

“I think it’s challenging and it’s fun to do,” James said. “You can learn math in a lot of different ways.”

On James’ screen are three-dimensional missiles, warheads created in his imagination and brought into virtual existence through his understanding of height, depth and width and his knowledge of geometry and basic mathematical principles combined.

These represent the marriage of math and creativity. When James looks at his missiles, he sees them, but he also sees math. He sweeps across the screen with his hands, eyes roaming over the screen as he describes what he has made.

“I can multiply or divide,” James said. “Or I can extrude and make these into new math problems.”

Epps knows that James will carry on with 3-D modelling.

“He is really good at this,” Epps said. “And this summer, other students will have the opportunity to experience 3-D modelling during the 3-D Academy Summer Camp. It will run from June 16 through June 26, Monday through Thursday.”

Ellerbe Middle School Principal Melvin Ingram has positive things to say about the program.

“I’m so proud of the sixth-graders in this program,” Ingram said. “Ms. Criswell and these students have done an awesome job. This type of project-based interactive learning has affirmed my belief that when students begin to create with the concepts they learn, they become more engaged in the learning process and motivated to deepen their understanding.”

Other big plans for technology in Richmond County Schools include teaching fourth-and-fifth-grade students to work with Python, a programming language that is simple and widely used in the technology sector.

“We are considering the addition of computer programming for future curriculum inclusion,” Epps said. “We call it coding for fluency, because it reinforces math and reading. Google uses Python, and that’s just one of the reasons we chose it. I consulted with several colleges, including Rice University. There is a consensus that Python is a good starting point for teaching students to code.”

Thanks to the grant, the school was also able to purchase equipment for 3-D scanning of real-world objects that can be viewed via the software.

To learn more about summer technology programs available to students of Richmond County Schools, call 910-582-5860.

Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-997-3111, ext. 18.

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