STEM school pioneers tablets for all in Hamilton County

STEM school pioneers tablets for all in Hamilton County

December 20th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Rick Smith is the superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.


Superintendent Rick Smith said it will cost about $18 million if the school system were to buy Pads for all 42,000 students. That doesn't include an additional $800,000 to $1 million to upgrade broadband capabilities in county schools. School officials also expect many students will bring their own iPads.


The Hamilton County Board of Education will hold a special work session at 4 p.m. today at the central office, 3074 Hickory Valley Road, to discuss technology upgrades. The regular December board meeting will follow at 5:30 p.m.

POLL: Should every student have an iPad?

Early this year, a ninth-grader at Hamilton County's STEM school was stumped by an algebra homework problem. So he went online to pose a question to his teacher.

It was past 10 p.m. on a school night and the teacher was asleep. But fellow students from all corners of the county, each armed with a school-issued iPad, were awake and jumped in to help.

They stayed up for hours -- well past 2 a.m. -- discussing math concepts and working together virtually. And they did it all without a teacher.

Officials say that scenario, repeated numerous times as students work together in and out of school, is just one example of the powerful role handheld technology can play in education.

And district leaders hope that all 42,000 Hamilton County students will get a chance to experience what's already working for the 75 students in the district's new science, technology, engineering and math school.

Superintendent Rick Smith said his recent push to bring an iPad to every student in the county isn't just about getting technologically prepared for new online state tests. It's about enhancing the quality of everyday instruction.

"I think this is going to become part of the business of public education," he said. "And we can't ignore it."

It's unclear where the money will come from. And Smith expects teacher buy-in and training to be the biggest hurdle for implementation. But it's worth the struggle of convincing more than 3,000 teachers.

Smith thinks many students struggle in school because they lose interest. But with handheld learning tools like iPads, students begin to control their own learning.

It also ends a so-called "teacher bottleneck," in which the teacher is the gatekeeper of all knowledge, said Tracey Carisch, managing director of the county's STEM hub, which brings business, education and philanthropic groups together to spread STEM education across the region.

But more importantly, school leaders are changing their view on technology. Before, computers, tablets and interactive video boards were all viewed as supplementary tools. Now the use of technology is a necessary life and workplace skill.

"Now we're saying technology is not just a support tool," Carisch said. "It is a fundamental change of what we are obligated to teach kids to be successful in their lives."

An iPad can help young students learn to read, providing definitions and vocalizations of new words. And the devices can instantly track a student's progress, reporting it back to the classroom teacher. At the STEM school, students complete nearly all their work in and out of school on the tablets. Teachers there have designed project-based curriculum that emphasizes collaboration and problem solving.

And Carisch said those students have shown that using the iPads around the clock for their school work takes the novelty out of technology. So they don't view it as just an entertainment device.

"It becomes what you use to do your work," Carisch said.

Once the iPads are implemented, administrators say teachers will find ways to incorporate them into instruction, which will hopefully result in improved test scores.

"I can go home and see two kids sitting on a couch looking at an iPad," said Robert Sharpe, assistant superintendent for education and leadership. "When we go into our schools we've got to see more than that."

Smith will present his thoughts on technology to school board members tonight. While many questions remain, particularly with funding, he hopes to some extent to let teachers and schools lead the way on implementation.

Teachers and parents at schools like Clifton Hills and Thrasher elementaries are already gearing up to purchase new technology. And the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce has committed to helping fund the tablets at the district's five i-zone schools, Smith said.

He hopes to make the mass purchase through a combination of fundraising, local business support and school district funds.

"I don't think you necessarily push this into the schools," the superintendent said. "I think this needs to be a natural move."