Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

August 16, 2013

MDHS to focus on tech, connectivity

By Steve Woodhouse Editor
The Journal Express

---- — There will be some amazing work done this year by the students of Melcher-Dallas High School, all with the goal of preparing them for today’s modern economy.

Melcher-Dallas has announced the Connected Student Initiative, designed to connect students to the world. As other districts in Marion County have participated in Apple’s 1:1 laptop program, Melcher-Dallas considered participating in a laptop program as well. However, according to MDHS Principal Josh Ehn, his school’s goal is to make the laptop/technology program more student-focused instead of concentrating on the device. The goal is connectivity.

“Our kids are smarter together than they are individually,” Ehn said. MDHS does have devices for students. The district chose to purchase Chromebooks for $250 each.

MDHS is also participating in Project Lead the Way this year. This program encourages schools to focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

“It’s about creating 21st Century learners and 21st Century workers,” Ehn said. He used Melcher-Dallas’ location as an example. Its proximity to manufacturing in the county, as well as the insurance base in Des Moines, will require students with these skills.

Although MDHS is going to encourage students to have strong STEM skills, the arts will be promoted as well.

Inside MDHS is a room specific for use of devices to express creativity. This includes a green wall, which the students can shoot video in front of to apply the background of their choosing in the video. Equipment is also available for them to make 3-D videos and, when funding is available, a 3-D monitor will be purchased for student use.

The center also has a station set up for students to be able to record podcasts. Print media will also be encouraged this year, as Ehn wants to see his yearbook staff try to write articles on a frequent basis.

Ehn said these changes are necessary because of a changing culture. He has been working with a group of teachers on this project for a year. The teachers involved have already found ways to utilize technology and connectivity in their classrooms.

According to the teachers involved, this is how today’s students learn. Ehn himself said he has been contacted by students via phone, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and e-mail, which demonstrates the variety of ways they are capable of communicating.

To help encourage students to reach their full potential, the district is allowing students to write their own personal education plans. Ehn wants them to follow their passion and schedule classes around that. The school is also following the Google model, which allows students to spend 20 percent of their day doing what they want – as long as it furthers their education. Google allows employees this amount of time to work on projects that benefit the company. By doing this, Google has been able to diversify and grow, according to Ehn.

When these ideas were presented to the school board and community, the response was positive. Jim Crozier, who heads the school’s at-risk program, said this is good for a town the size of Melcher-Dallas. It broadens the opportunities of students.

Abby Heaberlin said they took the time to let the community know what the plan was and why. Ehn expanded on that to say that these will not be attempted “just because everyone else is.” The staff feels as though this is what is best for the students and their futures. Several changes have occurred in technology, even in the 10 years since fellow committee member Annie Morasco has been out of school. The changes have also come with simplicity, according to Heaberlin, and connecting with others takes little time and effort.

“They don’t want to have to take a lot of time,” Crozier said. The students want information instantaneously.

Heaberlin already has a plan to work with a school in Sioux Center on a joint blog. Thanks to Skype, classrooms can be connected to anywhere in the world. For instance, if the class is studying about Germany, the staff is confident they can find a connection to someone who is there. Via Skype or other technology, the students can see, live, the landmark or area they are discussing.

Ehn says that as teachers develop these relationships, the opportunities for their students will continue to grow. Collaboration is the key to the future, they believe, and learning how to work well together now will improve their ability to function in a work environment.

The preparation has not all been left to the students. One of the projects in Linda Urbas’ science classes this year will be to build and program robots. Robotics is key to manufacturing today, Ehn added. Urbas spent two weeks learning about the models the students will build to effectively teach.

While Melcher-Dallas is breaking down virtual walls through technology this year, real walls have been torn down as well. Urbas’ science classroom, once broken into a standard, desk-filled room and a separate laboratory, is now one enormous room that includes desks, lab area and a group study area.

Ehn said he has not heard much feedback from parents yet. He is sure it will take a couple of months for everyone in the building to grow accustomed to the new style of learning, but the students have shown a great deal of enthusiasm for coming back to school.

The district will have 18 early dismissals this year, which will total 11 days of professional development for teachers. School days will also include “genius hours,” in which students will work with teachers and advisors. Ehn believes all of this focus on students’ internal talents and interests will lead to more successful graduates in the future.