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OnCUE Archive - 2003, October

Wild About Science

Digital cameras, video conferences and PowerPoint ó a creative teacher
excites his second-graders about "Animals Across America."

By Brian McDonough

The teacher moves around the classroom behind a digital camera, recording
one of the earliest forays of his second-graders into educational technology.
They're sitting at little iMacs, learning the basics of PowerPoint. They're
loading the computers for the first time. There are about half a dozen
machines, and the 20 students work excitedly in groups of two or three,
while some practice with the teacher's digital camera.

"Teacher, now what do I do?" calls a student on one side of the room.
From the other side: "Mr. Padilla!" The children's voices bubble over each
other as they figure out the computers. The video camera catches a student
practicing with the digital camera, motioning for his impromptu model to
move a little more to the right. Someone else calls for the teacher, and
the camera whips away.

These early steps, captured on handheld video, were the start of Lucio
Padilla Jr.'s "Animals Across America" project, which gave his second-grade
class at Mains Elementary in the Calexico Unified School District hands-on
technology experience as they covered science and reading/writing standards.
The innovative project was a collaboration with institutions across the
United States.

It's not the first tech effort for Padilla, who has been teaching for
seven years. "Through the previous years I've been doing similar programs,"he says, "little by little increasing my technology skills."

One advantage of consistently making efforts with technology, he finds,
is that he creates a talent pool to draw on later. As he prepared to work
with his second-graders on their first project, he borrowed several former
students from their third-, fourth- and sixth-grade classrooms to help
teach his current class how to work the technology.

Square One

He called the project "Animals Across America" and worked closely with
the Imperial County Office of Education, which loaned him five laptops
in addition to his own and the two computers already in his classroom.
For a field trip, the office provided five digital cameras, supplementing
Padilla's, which he'd used to teach the kids the basics of digital photography. 

The county office also had a list of animal-oriented institutions that
could do video conferences for classrooms, and he got to work setting up
some onscreen interactions. He'd worked with the San Diego Zoo before,
but this time it was the Columbus and Cincinnati zoos in Ohio and the Elephant
Sanctuary in Hoenwald, Tenn. These online contacts would be accompanied
by a fact-gathering field trip, as well.

For the first six weeks of the project in the spring 2003 semester,
he worked on the basics: writing a first draft of a report, operating the
computers, using PowerPoint and the digital cameras.

His video camera captured the entire class out in the yard, sharing
five digital cameras: It's the first full-class lesson in taking digital
photos -- a skill they'll need on an upcoming field trip to the California
Wolf Center. The kids move about the field, taking photos, then posing
for classmates, making rabbit-ears behind each others' heads. Padilla's
video camera sweeps to three girls who rush up so quickly you half expect
them to smack into the lens. The lead girl holds a digital camera, but
they all speak at once: "Mr. Padilla, how do you delete?" they ask, voices
overlapping, holding up their camera.

Live Interactions

Cut to the real deal: Once the students were up to speed on the technology
and on writing reports, there was research into the animals. The Columbus
video conference would cover manatees. The Cincinnati event would discuss
the zoo's "Nobody Likes Me" program - bats, snakes and amphibians. The
topic at the elephant sanctuary was obvious. He and his students studied
the animals and prepared questions. 

For the video conferences, they visited the institutions' Web sites
and got information. The institutions offer two-way video conferencing
that allows the classes to interact with the presenter on the other end.
You might wonder if such a setup would be enough to engage a class of 20
students. Padilla found it more than enough - he'd even invite other teachers
to bring their classes to attend the presentations.

The highlight of the project was the field trip - briefly postponed
by mountain snow - to the California Wolf Center. The video camera shows
the students listening attentively as a docent tells the story of two silver-haired
wolves prowling in their cage. Hands shoot up frequently to ask questions
derived from the persentation and from the kids' previous research. 

"In draft form, they had their questions, and they had a Q&A session
with the presenter," Padilla says. "They took notes and digital photographs."On video, they pressed up close to the cage and passed cameras around,
taking turns snapping shots.

Slide Shows

Back in the darkened class, weeks later, a student is silhouetted against
the bright display screen, showing her PowerPoint presentation. One by
one, about 15 of the kids take turns presenting their reports on the wolves,
going over eating habits, habitat issues - sharing what they've learned.

"Wolves kill deer because they're carnivores," one student reports.
"They hunt because they need to eat."

"I know they have sharp teeth," another reports. 

But by the time the project was done, the kids knew a lot more than
what a wolf eats, or how to spell manatee. Padilla said the project inspired
the students to learn more and to take a more active interest in the topics,
but also gave them technology skills and the ability to create projects
that showed an end result to their efforts to learn.

Electronic Enthusiasm

"I've always been a strong proponent for technology in education,"he says. "When I had less experience, I'd seen how excited the kids got
with just a little access to technology. The kids also have a sense of
pride that we use technology in the classroom. They tell their friends
about it. Other teachers tell me they talk about it."

He says it was exciting to have students looking forward to their lessons,
and what better way to supplement science standards than with technology?
Padilla says it made for a great time all around.

"It's exciting to see 7-year-olds capable of getting these skills,"he said.

 For Padilla, the last seven years have been a proving ground
as he developed his technology skills and found creative ways to enhance
his classroom teaching.   Now he's taking those skills to a more
challenging venue. 

"In September I'm moving to a junior high," he says. "I'm looking forward
to new experiences with older students. I'll need to get my skills improved.
I'm really interested in getting to do higher-end technology projects."

One suspects the kids at De Anza Junior High also have a lot to look
forward to.