George Lucas Educational Foundation

An Innovative Computer Initiative Gains Momentum

A snapshot of Maine's middle school laptop program from 2003, shortly after the start of the ground-breaking initiative. More to this story.
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An Innovative Computer Initiative Gains Momentum

Narrator: They are where Maine seventh-graders are, in the classroom, at home and in the field. In September of 2002, some 19,000 shiny, new laptops were placed in the hands of Maine's middle-schoolers and their teachers. It was the beginning of a bold experiment that may revolutionize public education, an initiative born of a rare budget surplus and the vision of former Governor Angus King.

Angus: This idea was basically to make our people the most digitally literate society on Earth.

Teacher: Attach that to me in an e-mail.

Angus: You cannot grasp the power of this idea until you go into one of these seventh-grade classrooms, where there are 20 kids there all with their iBooks open and the teacher's wandering around up and down the aisles and the kids are all doing this stuff, and you can almost hear, "Eureka!"

Teacher: So, what's another crustacean that you know?

Student: A lobster.

Teacher: Yes. They're related to lobsters. These are…

Angus: One of the most powerful parts of this idea is that it's everybody. Is it an equity tool.

Teacher: Somebody just take care of that.

Narrator: Using their laptops, students have decided worlds of knowledge beyond the classroom. These students from Nobleboro Central School are on a daylong research field trip with the Maine Lakes Conservancy Institute.

Shippen: Today we've been working with the Nobleboro Central School, where we've been out on the lake on our mobile floating classroom, the Melinda Anne, where the kids have been engaging in hands-on experiential lake science education using different science equipment, and they will take this data back to the classroom, where they have put it into their laptops, and they will load it onto the Students Portal section of the MLCI's Web site, where the kids feature their lake, their community, to show the world.

Student: These are the old traffic jams, bugs.

Shippen: We start with developing a sense of wonder, and there's two criteria we have for any piece of equipment that comes on the boat. One, it has to have a basis in the science; and, two, it's got to have the "oh, cool" factor. If we don't get an "oh, cool" out of the kids within 30 seconds, that equipment's out of there, because we've only got about an hour and a half, 2 hours with them, and what we want to do is really get their sense of wonder going, because that generates the questions, which leads to new knowledge.

Wow, that is a huge daphnia. See if you can zero in on that.

One of the things that we were looking for was: How do we make these laptops more than just a $2,000.00 pencil? What is the transformative educational value of these laptops, and our Students Portal is that.

Narrator: Back in the classroom, students organize the data and photos they gathered in the field and write descriptions of their findings that will be placed on the conservancy's Web site.

Student: They look sort of like puffer fish.

Mary Ann: Puffer fish, they do. That's kind of a good analogy.

I think that hands-on, multisensory is really what gets them fired up. They own it. They've experienced it. So then to come back to the classroom and start playing with that information and how to make that enticing so other people will want to read it, I think they get really jazzed up about that, because they're being inventors. They're being creators, and then it's changing the way that learning happens.

Student: The first one was better.

Narrator: The laptops are also changing the way teaching happens here.

Teacher: So, listen. Here we go. Walk me through, because you guys are the experts.

Student: You edit.

Teacher: We've got to go down to "Edit Project," right?

Angus: One of the crucial elements of our project was that we took the time and the money from the outset to work with the teachers before dropping the hardware on the desks, because if you just give every kid a computer, it ain't going to work. This is a fundamentally different way to teach, to get at information, to present information. The integration of the Internet into the daily curriculum is the next big educational challenge.

Ken: Microscopic blue-green algae.

Narrator: For science teacher Ken Williams, using the laptops to exploit Internet resources has been a liberating experience.

Ken: Say, "Here's the loon assignment from my dad." Go.

Student: Here's the loon assignment from my dad.

Ken: Good. Beautiful. Now let me go see…

I actually have worked less this year and kids have worked more, because I've done less talking and they've done more finding, and it's absolutely happened that way.

Student: We can find things out for ourselves. You can just say, "All right, everybody. Search Google and try and find some information about this," or, "Let's go out on the boat and find these little bugs and take pictures of them to display on the Internet," or something like that. It's just more interesting that we can find things out for ourselves. I think you're learning more that way than reading about it in a book.

Ken: They're seeing the whole picture. They're seeing how a little worm can get plopped on the Internet for somebody else to see that, and I think there's going to be this great rippling effect of information and stewardship. I think that's the goal.

Narrator: At King Middle School in Portland, students create digital products that demonstrate the depth of their learning. One class recently worked with the local Audubon Society to produce "Fading Footprints," a CD-ROM that catalogues several of Maine's endangered species. Each student picked an animal and created original artwork and written descriptions that required extensive research.

Student: We were also using our library and many books that tried to find some information on Internet. We use our laptops a lot. That was the big help.

David: What used to happen is you'd have to go down to the library and you'd read and you'd take your notes on a separate piece of paper and then you'd take all your notes and put them on cards and then you'd go and you'd build something from them in your English class, and now you're doing this whole gathering of information and expressing it and representing it at the same time. And so what happens is kids are working with information, more information they've ever seen before in a much more immediate and gratifying way.

Student: Land. That's like geography.

Student: That's geography.

David: The laptops come with an amazing set of applications that allow kids to work with so many different kinds of ways of thinking.

Student: We're linking to sort of make sure that each page goes to the correct other page, like if you clicked on "documentary video" it would really go to the documentary video. And then everyone's pages had to be linked.

Student: It took a long time.

Student: But once you got the hang of it, it sort of all connects all together.

Seymour: These kids are more engaged. These kids are coming to school more promptly. They are talking at home more about what they did at school.

Narrator: As a prime mover of the laptop initiative, Seymour Papert is encouraged by what he has seen in the first year of the program.

Student: This year my grades were a lot better. I think it was because of laptops, because I was doing better work and was more interested.

Seymour: Does it make it harder or easier?

Student: Sometimes it's easier and sometimes it's harder.

Seymour: Which do you prefer?

Student: Well, I like it harder, because then I'm learning more.

Student: Sometimes our teachers make our projects harder and things, because we have our laptops to access information and stuff.

Seymour: It's lovely seeing that it's taking on this excitement, but I keep on insisting it is just a first step. In the course of time, people will see that they can do very different stuff in school, and what's great about the situation here is what it could grow into that goes beyond what is happening in many other places where there are computers.

David: The title for the laptop initiative, as far as I like to remember, is called "Maine Learns," and the learning is about how to work with other people. It's about how to get teachers and kids to re-imagine what the classroom is and to apply that knowledge and to take it to someplace new, but the main thing is the seed of change is the computer, and it's right there. Everybody's got it. They know they've got to use it, and, boy, is it happening.

Teacher: You guys are right on the money.

Narrator: For more information about what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Diane Curtis
  • Leigh Iacobucci
  • Miwa Yokoyama


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Geoffrey Leighton
  • Larry Young
  • Nathan Pickens
  • Joe Labonte


  • Kris Welch

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Additional Footage Courtesy of

  • Leighton Images

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Comments (4) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Chanett Jenkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this program will help save trees and its more efficent for everyone

Ed's picture

Laptop computers are always a good way to go for a variety of reasons, one of them being that they are portable and so easy to use. I think it would be a great idea if everyone had a laptop in school. Unfortunately, I don't think the school or the people can afford them as of right now. But you can always hope for the future!

Curtis Lind's picture

I think our students can achieve their potential as learners with the right motivation. Clearly, correctly used technology with focus and direction is what pushes their button. I can't wait to get my equipment to get going...

Dan Jalbert's picture

Students will use technology with or without our help. By setting curriculum to utilize the best features of technology like laptops we can get students focused and engaged to meet the goals our standards demand. Laptops also provide so much versatility, time saving and productive enhancements to instruction that it is such a wise way to go with instructional planning.

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