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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Visualizing Technology Integration: A Model for Meeting ISTE Educational-Technology Standards

Educators employ project learning to explore science and history together.
Robert Simpson 3
Technology Integration Specialist / Boston Area

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards (formerly the NETS), call for the integration of technology in schools. The truth is that such technology integration is difficult but absolutely necessary.

VIDEO: Turning on Technology: Using Today's Tools to Study Yesterday's

Running Time: 10 min.

I prefer to use a concept map to explain complicated processes -- such as integrating technology -- when it is important to see the overall picture but also drill down into the details. The concept map for our curriculum at Ferryway School, in Malden, Massachusetts, shows the forces that have shaped our approach. (Download the PDF; open it in Adobe Reader for clickable links.) The instruction, development, and analysis of the curriculum occurs simultaneously but at varying degrees of intensity.

Often, we hear that a curriculum should be interdisciplinary, but what exactly does that mean? For one thing, the curriculum should involve multiple subject areas. Our curriculum started as an elementary science lesson on natural resources and simple machines.

But because student-performance data on the state's standardized science exam indicated that our students did not understand these subject areas in a deep and meaningful way, the teachers decided to use a new approach: They chose to embrace a project-learning strategy to connect science and colonial history through a local historic site that dates back to the 1640s, the Saugus Iron Works.

The teachers knew that their students would likely enjoy a field trip to the Saugus Iron Works if they had the knowledge to understand its significance. (Also, it didn't hurt that the proposed curriculum scheme aligned with state standards in science, history, and English-language acquisition.) The delivery vehicle for this new approach was a custom-designed Web site called a project-based unit. (On the concept map, see the circle under "Development" that reads "Saugus Iron Works PBU.") The PBU allowed teachers to creatively weave together a set of lessons that effectively integrated the different subject areas they were covering.

Creating the Right Project

Tufts University graduate student Andy Mueller joined our curriculum-development team as an engineering intern, and his expertise resulted in a lesson on designing a waterwheel. One of the most challenging questions on the state science exam is an open-response question that requires students to solve a design problem. Having teams of students build their own waterwheels gave them the same opportunity the early colonists had at the Saugus Iron Works -- to learn to harness the power of water through trial and error.

In order to build an efficient waterwheel, students needed to understand the engineering concept of torque. Mueller's multimedia presentations used text, graphics, animation, and narration to present that concept. Students could navigate through these presentations both at school and at home.

With their understanding of torque, the students were able to build better waterwheels by considering the impact of radius and volume during the engineering-design process. Additionally, the students learned to apply some complicated mathematics in order to calculate the torque of their waterwheels. In this case, technology helped give students the knowledge to become better problem solvers and perhaps future engineers.

Creating Curriculum

Curriculum development requires a dedicated team of educators who have good instructional skills. The instructional team for this curriculum started with a core group of fifth-grade teachers. They, in turn, enlisted the support of other educators. As the technology specialist, I helped translate their curriculum ideas to the Web. A Web-based curriculum enhances the collaborative nature of instruction simply because it's easier for everyone to access and work with the curriculum. For instance, when students travel to the computer lab, the computer teacher can help them perform online research and create concept maps to explain processes, such as the rock cycle.

Once the collaborative spirit was unleashed, other teachers offered their assistance. The educators shaded in gold on the concept map had a direct role in helping the core teachers develop and implement the curriculum: Our consumer-education teacher taught students how to design and sew rock-people costumes. The technology teacher taught the hands-on skills needed to construct waterwheels in the school-technology and woodworking shop. The support of these exploratory teachers significantly enhanced the students' mastery of subject content.

During classroom instruction, support staff, such as special education aides and other paraprofessionals, provided additional assistance to students with learning disabilities to ensure they could complete their tasks. Our school district uses an inclusion model that groups students with differing ability levels. Project learning requires students to work cooperatively to complete major assignments and solve problems.

The curriculum directors encouraged us to be innovative, but they also emphasized how important it was that the unit lined up with district content standards. One of the most difficult aspects in justifying project learning is that it requires extra time, which clashes with the time demands of preparing students for standardized subject exams. We've found that broadly distributing the curriculum-implementation duties over a diverse team of educators increases the probability of success in project learning.

The Passport System

A successful curriculum is one that inspires students to own their learning in such a way that their achievement is a natural by-product. One of the most important motivational tools in the Saugus Iron Works curriculum is the use of a passport system. As students complete activities, which spiral upward in difficulty, they earn passport stamps. We also require students to keep an organized portfolio of their work. Learning to physically organize their portfolios helps them organize their thoughts and ideas when completing assignments. (Fifth-grade students take pride in this visual representation of their progress.)

When the curriculum first launched, most of the work was paper based, but as the teachers acquired more technology skills, the work became digital. As you might suspect, the team has embraced concept mapping as an effective tool. Students absolutely love the opportunity to build visual representations of their learning, and doing so addresses the NETS-S call to use technology for creativity and innovation.

Another increasingly important method of capturing student achievement, especially with regard to project learning, is shooting classroom video footage. The tendency is to focus on what the teachers are teaching and their techniques, but when we videotaped classes, we saw a dynamic learning environment in which students were constantly sharing. The videos helped confirm that project learning was working, and it gave teachers the confidence to continue developing the curriculum.

But does project learning result in what some consider real student achievement -- standardized-testing results? An analysis of student performance on the state's standardized science exam has repeatedly shown that our students do better on questions that relate to the project-learning curriculum. In fact, the project's effect is strong enough to raise overall average achievement by 7 percent, despite the fact that it covers only 20 percent of the science standards.

These results inspired our team to use the same curriculum approach to teach animal adaptation and biomes in the fourth grade. If students could enter fifth grade having had an authentic project-learning experience in biomes, we reasoned, then their fifth-grade teachers could work on mastery of that content as well as teach the waterwheel project.

Successful projects require a school structure that encourages curriculum integration and innovation, with a special emphasis on ensuring that the technology is always on.

Robert Simpson is a technology specialist at the Ferryway School, in Malden, Massachusetts.

Comments (75)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Diana Gallegos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a pre-service teacher in Arizona and an employee of a school, I am amazed at the technology available to schools. Our students are becoming more and more adept at using technology, so schools in turn should embrace this to keep students busy learning in classrooms as well. I love what Ferryway School has done and it's obvious by the looks on the students faces that they are having fun while learning. I loved the anonymous polling shown in the biome project, it was almost like a quiz show! I was having fun just watching this, and I know that students retain more when they are enjoying the activity and being a part of something. I hope that all schools will start doing projects like this.

E Duprey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The information provided in the article and video was beneficial for me to see how I can successfully apply technology in the classroom. I thought the "passport system" was very creative to use with the fifth grade students at Ferryway School. It combined hands-on training with sewing costumes, designing and constructing their own waterwheels. The technique of interdisciplinary learning allowed students to apply their new learned knowledge once they qualified to attend their field trip. I look forward to discovering my own curriculum that orchestrates the passport system in my future classroom.

Diana Angel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a preservice teacher in Casa Grande, Az. After reading the article and viewing the video, technology fascinates children in subjects ofall areas. The subject of Science is not very popular amongst children, but after watching how engaged these students were, it makes you want to integrate more technology with all curriculum. Technology was used to incorporate Science, Math, Art and English. The teachers at Ferryway School really prepared their 5th graders for this exciting, fun and memorable trip. The children obtained so much information, they will probably remember for the rest of their lives.

Karen Budlong's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a preservice teacher at the ASU Polytecnic campus. Reading the article and watching the video opened my eyes up to a whole new way of teaching. I was impressed by how the teachers integrated technology into their classrooms. I have found students learn effectively when they have hands on experiences. I love what Ferryway school has done to incorporate technology. The students seemed to enjoy working with each other and acquiring information from the technology the teachers provided. I am looking forward to implementing several of the technologies shown in my future classroom.

Martha M. Aguirre's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a preservice teacher of the State of Arizona University, I am sure that kids in middle school would benifit the most.

All of today's schools should incorporate technology and teach integrated lessons to their students. Students in higher grade levels need the motivation of integrated lessons, need to be kept interested in subject matters with high intensity, as well as teach other students subject matter they have learned to their peers so they can empower those with low self esteem and empower the gifted to add better social skills as well. Also, kids with special needs will learn more from hands-on activities and cooperative learning than long lectures and handout sheets most schools use today. It would be awesome if all middle grade schools could use this method of teaching.

Lydia Guerrero's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a preservice teacher I thought it was great that the teachers realized the students were in need of a different approach. By watching the video I noticed how engaged the students were with the hands on approach. I think it's great that they started out small and gradually added more. I really like the passport system it allows students to take ownership of their learning by accomplishing projects along the way. I am amazed at the difference the new approach had on the standardized tests. By using a new approach it shows the importance of trying new ways of teaching curriculum.

Melissa Ellis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Pre-Service Teacher
Melissa Ellis
September 17, 2008

After reading the article and watching the video, I understood how technology could combine subjects, curriculum and teachers at Ferryway School. Teachers were allowed to creatively intertwine lesson plans that effectively integrated different subjects areas. The successful curriculum experience by the Ferryway fifth graders was one that inspires students learning. Fifth grade teachers collaborated with computer teachers to incorporate the curriculum and research into computer lessons. The technology used helped to give students the knowledge to become better problem solvers in the classroom and standardized testing.

L Clarke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the opportunities that students are exposed to in current years are astounding because of the advances in technology. I am excited to be able to learn about different technology based sources I can use in my future classroom. The best part of the curriculum that they adapted at Ferryway is the collaboration which can be seen in all educational areas. I believe that when a grade level team is closely knit, the students benefit from collaboration and unity they team demonstrates.

Maria Camargo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In watching the video and reading the article about the fifth graders at Ferryway School that the students are actively engaged all the time in their work. I really liked the classrooms system with receiving stamps in their passports for finishing their assignments. I also liked at the end of filling their passports they got to go on the field trip. It makes the students more motivated in getting their work done. In Ferryway School it was great to see the amount of technology in the classroom and to see how it engaged the students ten times more. I agree with the video that when students use technology they have to figure things out on their own. By having a lot of technology in the classroom it makes the students work more animated. At Ferryway School with the students having the technology available and the hands on activities it shows their understanding the concepts they're learning.

Maria Camargo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In watching the video and reading the article about I noticed that the fifth graders at Ferryway School that the students are actively engaged all the time in their work. I really liked the classrooms system they used where they received stamps in their passports for finishing their assignments. I also liked at the end of filling their passports they got to go on the field trip. It makes the students more motivated to get their work done. In Ferryway School it was great to see the amount of technology in the classroom and to see how it engaged the students ten times more. I agree with the video that when students use technology they have to figure things out on their own. By having a lot of technology in the classroom it makes the students work more animated. Since the students at Ferryway School have technology available, they are able to show their understanding of the concepts presented by a variety of meaningful hands on activities.

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