George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

A Change in Attitude: Incorporating Technology In the Classroom Gives Curriculum a Boost

The creative use of remote controls gives this class a renewed spirit for learning.

April 1, 2003

It shouldn't be surprising that the whoops and hollers coming from Karen Levins's U.S. history class sound much like those from the studio audience on television's Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? 

These students at Harrison Central High School, in Gulfport, Mississippi, have all the fun of learning history in a game format with interactive remote control devices like those used on TV.

"Which state was the first to give women the vote? Colorado? Wyoming? Massachusetts? Montana?" asks junior Randall Johnson, that day's Regis Philbin. His classmates choose from A, B, C, or D on their bright blue remotes. "Is that your final answer?" Johnson asks.

The answers are recorded on a TV screen and in a computer that Levins later checks to pinpoint student strengths and weaknesses and create a plan to improve the weaknesses. The cheers start when it looks like most of the class chose the correct answer: Wyoming.

Levins then follows up with questions of her own and directs the discussion to a deeper level of the how's and why's of the Wyoming suffragette support.

"Is That Your Final Answer?":

Students use interactive devices during an informal U.S. history quiz.

Credit: Edutopia

Fun and Learning

Levins has posted a sign in her classroom that says, "Try not to have a good time. This is supposed to be educational -- Charles Schulz." But she laughs that students learn more and she enjoys her job more when they are eager to participate. With the interactive-quiz format, they all are clearly engaged.

"It's better than doing pencil work or on the board," says student Alfred Lewis. "It helps you learn because you get everybody involved. It's fun."

"I think we should do this in every class," adds Johnson. "If it's fun, then people want to learn more."

Levins says she has compared test scores when the class has used the remotes, which are known as eclicks, and when they haven't, and the scores are better when they have used them. "I just think when they have something they can put their hands on, and it's a little fun, they tend to remember a little better," she says.

Even when lecturing, Levins involves the students, partly because she remembers how bored she was in school having to sit through lecture after lecture. She uses an overhead transparency that summarizes key concepts of the lecture. Students are assigned to take what are called "guided notes" (which are graded), in which they fill in key words and phrases that are omitted from the transparency.

Probes connected to laptop computers help measure water quality in the Little Biloxi River.

Credit: Edutopia

A Commitment to High Tech

Levins's class is just one of many at Harrison, which was one of four southeastern schools to receive a two-year, $250,000 "Power to Learn" technology grant from the BellSouth Foundation, to take advantage of what technology can do to promote learning.

Throughout the rural, 1,600-student school, with students in grades 10-12, technology is used to accelerate, enhance, or enliven instruction. Charlotte Daves, the Harrison County School District's technology director, has been the leading force in working with teachers to get them excited and knowledgeable about technology and bringing computers and other high tech devices into the classroom.

She especially sees academic progress for many students when they are doing projects using technology that attempt to solve real-world problems.

"When students are asking to participate in classes, when they want to stay after school and work on projects, when they're bringing things from home, when they're meeting you on the weekend to do things on campus, then definitely you made a difference," Daves says.

Computer programs help Jamion Burney analyze the effect of short and long mallets on sound.

Credit: Edutopia

Wide Range of Technology

Examples at Harrison of that engagement abound:

  • On a clear but brisk winter day, Barbara Robicheaux's sophomore algebra students were being tutored by a local middle school class on how to use a global-positioning-system (GPS) device to plot the longitude and latitude of the edges of different school buildings, find the distances between them, and create a diagram of the school for the purpose of improving the security plan. The students then went back into class and heard two city planners talk about how they use the GPS system.
  • Students in Olivia "Doc" Graves's physics class were tracing their movements from a television monitor onto a piece of clear plastic in an assignment on determining velocity. The students had videotaped themselves doing something -- cheerleading, throwing a football, hitting a tennis ball, pitching a baseball, playing the xylophone -- and were studying their movements frame by frame on a television monitor. Each frame represented one-thirtieth of a second, and, by knowing time and distance, the students could determine the velocity of their movements. Part of the assignment included videotaped interviews of experts.
  • In Bill Westling's class on computer-engineering technology, students had designed unusual computer systems, including one that looked like a truck, with the tailgate, the wrist rest, and the motherboard under the hood. Westling brought in engineer Keith Fulton to critique the designs on practicality and cost-effectiveness from a manufacturer/investor standpoint. "Last semester, I did everything straight by the book," says Westling, who had been a mechanical engineer before he started teaching. "The textbook's kind of dry, so it was hard to keep the kids interested. As soon as I mentioned this project, kids that weren't necessarily doing their work got excited. They did their work not only on time -- some would go ahead and do more." Students from his class also built computers as part of Governor Ronnie Musgrove's successful initiative to make Mississippi the first state in the nation to have two Internet-connected computers in every classroom.
  • Charlotte Arledge's algebra students were analyzing raw data of heart rates and respiration provided by Harrison's perennial state-champion cheerleaders. Using graphing calculators and computers, the algebra students were graphing the data into equations to determine optimum heart rate and whether the cheerleaders were physically fit. The analyses then went back to the cheerleaders, who, with their sponsor, Dianne Denley, determined whether they needed to rev up a fitness regimen. Before routines and during cooldown, the cheerleaders hooked themselves up to heart rate and respiration monitors attached to computers. The computer printout was then given to the algebra students.
  • Arledge's trigonometry students were graphing their biorhythms to determine whether there was a correlation between them and performance on trigonometry tests. Other students were doing Internet research about salaries paid to professional sports stars and their win-loss records to see the extent to which money creates championship teams. And still other students were graphing the tides in Biloxi Bay and the Bay of St. Louis during fair weather and during hurricanes with the goal of helping emergency-response teams draw up more organized evacuation plans.
  • Students from chemistry, biology, and math classes joined Doc Graves and science teacher Donnie Lott on a half-mile hike on the student-built Sundial Nature Trail to the Little Biloxi River to, among other assignments, use probes and laptop computers to measure salinity, oxygen levels, and temperature for the purpose of determining water quality in that part of the stream. The probes can be set to collect samples every second and then chart the findings on the computer. Both Lott and Graves also use simulations of dissections or hard-to-picture concepts like projectile motion in which students can set an angle and speed and predict where a projectile will land.
  • In the Red Rebel Diner, student chefs, waiters, buspersons, and bookkeepers -- all training for careers in the restaurant business in a full-time school program -- were using an Excel program to determine profits and set up the grocery list for the next buying trip.
  • In an English class, senior Stephanie O'Neal presented a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation with an anti-Vietnam War point of view to a class that included a number of Reserve Officers' Training Corps students. "There's something happenin' here," the familiar first line of Buffalo Springfield's 1960s protest song "For What It's Worth," caught the audience's attention. The music accompanied pictures of war victims and protests. "I wanted this to touch people," says O'Neal. "A picture on a poster board just wouldn't have done it."
  • All around the school, students from the broadcast-journalism class were videotaping student projects and events, then going back to the school's TV studio to edit, do voiceovers, and get ready for the broadcast.

"If they're just doing canned stuff, there's nothing interesting about it, but if they see something that's real, they really pay more attention," says Charlotte Arledge. "It sure makes my job easier when they're interested."

A project on velocity focuses on the student's own movements.

Credit: Edutopia

Not Always Easy

What it doesn't make easier, she notes, is grading. "It's a lot harder to grade those projects than it is to grade a multiple-choice test. And you sit down at 9 o'clock and you'd rather go to bed and you say, 'Why do I do this?' But it's worth it."

Technology Director Charlotte Daves says professional development for teachers -- voluntary professional development -- is essential because tying technology to substantive subject matter is no piece of cake. Neither is learning what computers can do and how to use them, and Harrison takes full advantage of what seems like students' innate mastery of the high tech machines. O'Neal, who is president of Harrison Central's Computer Club, is among the students who take part in Gen Y, a program in which students teach teachers how to use technology, from email to Web sites.

Technology is used to keep track of profits and to maintain menus and grocery lists in a program that trains future restaurant workers.

Credit: Edutopia

Students Teaching Teachers

In both GenY and professional development, the goal is to get the teachers to want the help. "I don't think people should be strong armed into things," says Daves. So she talks to teachers, listens to what they're trying to do, and tries to make a match to an expert (student or professional) or a resource to fit the particular teacher.

In the classroom, the use of all those high tech gadgets may sometimes look like playing, but Daves says they serve a very serious purpose. "We're not playing with toys for the sake of playing with toys," she says. "What we're doing is actually meaningful -- and it's going to make an impact on the people and the population and the community that we're around."

"We can't leave these kids a century behind," adds Graves.

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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  • 9-12 High School

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