Hamilton County school board members saw a glimpse at the future of schools Friday with a visit to the county's new STEM school - a program that will be key when it comes time to train thousands of other teachers on incorporating new technology into their classrooms.
The STEM school -- science, technology, engineering and math -- issued iPads to all of its students in its inaugural semester this fall. And Friday, the board's technology committee explored lessons already learned there as it deliberates how to bring iPads or other devices to all 42,000 students across the county.
STEM teachers said their original concerns that students would lose or break their iPads were mostly unwarranted. Only a few have been damaged, and nearly all were repaired free under the device's warranty program.
A bigger issue for teachers was getting themselves acquainted with the new technology.
Most of the county's 80 schools have a limited supply of computers and tablets. So adding a device for every student will create new obstacles for teachers.
"It's going to take a cultural change," said Lee McDade, assistant superintendent of administrative services.
At the STEM school, the iPads' usage is nearly seamless. They are used for nearly all lessons, assessments, papers and activities. Teachers, many of them new to the technology, had to build curriculum and class materials from scratch.
"In essence, this school is like a science lab," said Principal Tony Donen. "We're testing out different practices."
And this type of instruction requires more of teachers than the traditional model.
"It takes the professional practice of teaching to a level it's really not been before," said Robert Sharpe, assistant superintendent for education and leadership support. "Teachers really need to know more. They really need to know how to maneuver in this environment."
While the district may not have extra funds to train thousands of teachers on new technology, Sharpe said it does have one advantage: time. Several teacher training days already are built into the academic calendar.
And already-tech-savvy schools like the STEM school, located on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College, could serve as a training ground for teachers across the county.
"We can build in time for teachers to do the learning," Sharpe said. "I think teachers learn best with other teachers in a real-world environment."