Tigers, by a long shot, are the most popular animals in the zoo.
That’s according to Watson Berreman, a first grader at LeConte Elementary School, who recently polled his classmates on the matter and poured the results into a classroom computer. The result: a colorful graph hanging neatly on the wall clearly demonstrating the popularity of tigers over lions, monkeys and elephants.
Berreman’s computerized poll is just one indication of the growing use of technology in the Berkeley schools and at LeConte in particular – one of four district schools benefiting from a new, three-year, nearly $3 million magnet grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The grant allows LeConte, Thousand Oaks, Washington and City of Franklin Micro-Society schools to choose a particular area of focus, such as science or the arts, and build around it. The goal is to play upon students’ natural interests, generating greater interest in education as a whole.
LeConte has chosen science as its focus, and with the help of the grant money, it is attempting to make technology a powerful tool in the children’s scientific inquiries.
Students in teacher Bessie Citrin’s fourth grade class, for instance, are entering data from an experiment on living and non-living matter into a program called “the Cruncher,” and producing graphs to support their conclusions.
In the coming months, fifth graders will use computers and digital cameras to develop a field guide for the school’s on-site gardens.
Jennifer Smallwood, a fourth and fifth grade science teacher at LeConte, says computers can help some students understand material they might not otherwise comprehend.
“We all have different modes of learning,” she said. “You can look at something and learn it. You can experience something and learn it. (Technology) is one more medium.”
But the school is not yet making maximum use of its technological tools, say parents and staff.
“There are some computers that exist in some classrooms that are not used as much as we would wish,” said Pierre Thiery, a computer instructor at City College of San Francisco, and parent of a LeConte fourth grader, who volunteers frequently at the school. “I think the challenge is to integrate (the computers) into the curriculum and make them useful, and I think there is a lot of work to be done there.”
Andrea Dunn, LeConte’s science and technology resource teacher for the magnet program, and Marilyn Littles, the school’s magnet coordinator, envision similar challenges. Working together, the two administrators are trying to enhance the use of computers, digital cameras and other tools by developing guidelines for the integration of technology into all components of the school’s curriculum.
Dunn and Littles are also providing computer-shy teachers with in-house training, and Dunn says the school may use part of its grant money to fund instruction by outside professionals.
“We feel we have to set the standard,” said Dunn, discussing the importance of teachers boning up on the latest technology. “If we’re asking the children to do a certain thing, we’re going to set the standard ourselves.”
Dunn said one of her top goals is to create a computer-savvy faculty so that, if the grant money dries up in three years, the technology program will still be strong.
Proper equipment is also vital if the technology initiative is to succeed, said Dunn. LeConte has already sunk a significant chunk of its grant money, which will total $530,000 over three years, into upgrading the school’s machinery.
The administration has placed an order for a new set of thirty “Alpha Smarts,” small, relatively inexpensive word processors that some students are already using at their desks. In addition, LeConte has ordered enough computers to fill a media center in the school library. The center should be up and running by the first of the year.
School officials hope that the technology program, when fully implemented, will not only provide students with a greater understanding for the subject matter in the curriculum, but endow them with the technological skills they will need to operate in today’s world.
Students must be able to create spreadsheets, comb the Internet and use design programs if they hope to land quality jobs when they grow older, school officials say.
“I think (the technology program) will provide students with an additional life skill to go out in the world and be competitive,” said Patricia Saddler, principal at the LeConte School.
In other words, it’s a zoo out there. And it’s better to be a tiger than a monkey.