Perhaps the greatest testimony to the Lawrence school district's new Explorations in Technology class are the grumblings of some students that it is offered only to seventh-graders.
"I think it's pretty good when eighth-graders are put out because they don't get to take the class," said Sylvia Bodolay, the district's coordinator of instructional computing. "When you've got kids fighting to get into that room, I think there are some really good, positive things happening."
This week is American Education Week, and the theme is "America's Schools: Take a New Look!" Anyone who already has taken a look at Explorations in Technology knows that it's not education as usual.
Just walking into an Explorations classroom, many differences are immediately apparent.
At South Junior High School, for example, one wall is dominated by an 8-foot by 13-foot poster of the Space Shuttle Columbia flying over the Earth. At all three junior high schools, a red, white and blue neon sign announces the name of the class.
"I thought we needed to have something so that when people walked in, they would know immediately that this was kind of different," said Robert Eales, the district's director of vocational and continuing education.
BUT THE most striking difference is the way the class itself is run. Seldom is the teacher in front of the classroom lecturing the students as a group. Rather, students usually are working in pairs at one of 16 different "modules" dealing with such topics as robotics, electronics, flight technology, applied physics and computer graphics and animation.
"When they're in the modules, I'm not really a teacher. I'm a facilitator," said Jim Nye, who teaches Explorations at South. "They're pretty independent. They have learned how to be problem-solvers."
And just as importantly, Nye said, the students are solving the same kinds of problems that people encounter in the real world.
In the robotics unit, students control a robotic arm by entering commands into a computer. At one point, students must command the arm to perform tasks involving precision while viewing the arm on a television monitor.
"It's as if they were working with something up in space or dealing with hazardous waste," Nye said.
IN OTHER activities, students:
Build a miniature car out of wood, taking into account such factors as weight and aerodynamics to create the fastest car they can.
Use a solar cooker to cook a hotdog as part of the energy, power and mechanics unit.
Learn many everday computer applications, such as desktop publishing and creating spreadsheets. The students also experiment with computer animation, and they play computer games that teach them about such things as U.S. geography.
"It's not like any class I've had before," said South seventh-grader Kate Polmanteer. "It's a lot more fun. You actually have hands-on activities."
Christy Newton, also a seventh-grader at South, said she sees the practicality of the modules, such as the one on building bridges.
"If you had a job like engineering bridges, this gives you a head start on it," Christy said.
TOM MULINAZZI, associate dean of Kansas University's School of Engineering, said he too is impressed by the class, especially by the high-tech equipment it employs.
"When I walked into this classroom, I was just amazed," Mulinazzi said, adding jokingly that his school days were in the pre-slide rule era. "If young men and young women get exposed to technology at that age, it will help them get over their fear of it, and down the line we're bound to get more people going into engineering."
The cost of purchasing the equipment and preparing the rooms for the Explorations classes came to about $300,000. About $180,000 of that cost was covered by federal grants. All seventh-graders are required to take the semesterlong course.
"I think it's probably one of the best things I've seen set up for a long time in the area of science," said Bodolay, who began working for the district just this fall. "It looks like the district put a lot of thought and effort and work into it."