One of the most striking aspects of the Explorations in Technology course at Olathe's Oregon Trail Junior High School is the diminished role of the teacher.
Although the instructor might be busy explaining the course to a visitor, students manage to go about their work uninterrupted.
Unlike the traditional classroom setup in which the teacher leads the whole class in an activity or exercise, students in this class work in pairs at different work stations, studying such subjects as applied physics, robotics and space flight.
But perhaps Oregon Trail eighth-grader Jason Zinn pinpointed the most important difference between Explorations in Technology and many other junior high school science or industrial arts classes.
"It's fun," Jason said.
Lawrence school officials also believe the program will appeal to students, and the Lawrence school board has approved initiating the program at Central Junior High School next school year.
DEPENDING on how much the board decides to spend in 1992-93, the program also could be initiated at West and South junior high schools next school year. Otherwise, the district might implement the program at the rate of one school per year.
All seventh-graders will be required to take the course, which has a much broader focus than the World of Construction class it will replace. Throughout a semester, students will have enough time to rotate among eight different work stations or "modules."
Among the 16 modules that students will be allowed to choose from are: communications; computer applications; computer graphics and animation; desktop publishing; electricity; electronics; energy, power and mechanics; engineering structures; flight technology; robotics and automation; rocketry and space; and applied physics.
While it might seem a daunting task to make physics enjoyable for junior high school students, Fred Erker, who teaches Explorations at Oregon Trail, said the course takes a good stab at it.
FOR ONE thing, he said, the applied physics unit involves a lot of hands-on activities. Students build their own miniature solar-powered cars and study the change in the car's velocity as they increase the number of solar panels used. Students also study how changes in gear ratios affect the car's velocity.
And, Erker said, the students get to take the cars home. He said that in as many modules as possible, he has students create something they can keep.
Robert Eales, director of vocational education in the Lawrence district, said that in the local program, students will get to work with lasers in the communications unit. A microphone will be hooked up at one end of the laser beam, and a speaker at other end will demonstrate to students how light can carry sound.
"It's spectacular. It really catches their attention," Eales said. And just as important, he said, "This is really a practical purpose for a laser."
FRANK DEHART, an industrial arts teacher at Central who will teach the Explorations course, said, "Hopefully, the kids are going to see a connection between what they're doing in Explorations and the real world of industry."
In other modules, students will program a small robot to perform specific functions, build small bridges from balsa wood to study structural design, and cut metal using a computerized milling machine instead of the manual milling machines more commonly found in schools.
"The way they're doing it in industry today is using the computer," Dehart said, adding that students will have to use math to program coordinates into the computer for cutting the metal.
While familiarizing students with technology is important, Erker said many people in industry are just as concerned that students learn some basic skills.
"THEY WANT people who can read and write and actually keep track of things," Erker said. "Getting to work on time is a problem, they say."
Erker said his students work on record-keeping and responsibility by signing into a personal logbook the minute they get to class. If they fail to sign in, they earn no points for the day.
Erker said he also wants the students to learn to follow verbal and written instructions, and students rely heavily on videotapes and manuals to learn what they must do to successfully complete a unit.
Richard Hinderliter, who also teaches Explorations at Oregon Trail, said that while the teacher's role is diminished, it does not disappear.
"I have as much to do as I had before," Hinderliter said. He said that with all the areas of technology covered in the program, "It's not hard for the kids, once they pick up on this stuff, to ask questions that you don't know the answers to."
HINDERLITER said the instructor is always there to help any student who runs into problems.
"We're not alienating ourselves from the kids," Hinderliter said. "I still get that personal contact with them. That's something that needs to be kept in there."
Dehart, who along with four other Lawrence teachers went through a week's worth of training in teaching Explorations, said the reason the teacher serves more of a facilitator role is that "the curriculum itself is really individualized and self-paced."
Overall, Eales said, the course should "diminish students' fear of technology and create a better understanding of some of the current technologies."