Magnetic Maryland

27th June 1997 at 01:00
In a suburb of Washington, DC, there's a school. Well, three schools actually. And one of them isn't really there. Vivi Lachs explains

Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC, is really three schools in one: it is a "magnet" school for maths, science and technology; it is part of the Maryland Virtual High School; and it is a mixed public (state) secondary school.

The magnet programme involves 400 of the school's 2,400 pupils taking specialised courses in maths, science and technology. The other 2,000 pupils come to the school because it's in their catchment area, but the magnet pupils come from all over Montgomery county. They are chosen on teacher recommendation and school grades. As one of their magnet teachers says, "They range from bright to very bright."

These teachers teach only the magnet programme, not in the main school. This causes some bad feeling among many of the high-school teachers who feel other pupils are being denied access to equipment and expertise. The "regular" pupils are mixed culturally, including African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans. This mix is not reflected in the magnet classes. One teacher explains apologetically that the magnet programme was set up at Blair to stop middle-class families from moving out of the area.

The magnet technology classrooms are packed with computers. I observed a programming class for 14-year-olds and was foolish enough to ask a pupil what he was doing. The reply was incomprehensible, as was the jumble of words on the screen, but he seemed to speak fluently and knowledgeably about why he preferred the B++ programming language to Pascal, and how he was looking forward to using Java. "Is it hard to understand?" I asked to bemused negative responses.

Other pupils had been designing a computer game, which they saw as having vocational relevance. One demonstrated his game, which involved plotting the trajectory of a cannon shot. Another pupil couldn't demonstrate his because it used a special piece of video software on his home computer. About 80 per cent of these students have PCs at home.

In the science part of the programme, computers are used as a tool to develop scientific ideas. After coming up with an idea for a new product, they search through the University of Maryland patents (on the Internet) to find anything similar. They then show their idea to the group using PowerPoint presentation software.

Teacher Sarah Clemmitt says she doesn't use IT much in Earth sciences, and then shows me satellite images of the Gulf Stream downloaded from the World Wide Web. The pupils use these to measure width, the radius of curvature and wavelength. Sarah Clemmitt e-mails the producer of the images - who has agreed to visit the school to talk to the pupils - to verify their pixel size.

On special days the magnet and regular teachers work together. When the magnet school was being wired for the Internet, some of the regular school labs, offices and classrooms were hooked up at the same time. It was seen as more important that teachers used it before the students, so the offices were first priority.

The Maryland Virtual High School, partly funded by the government-sponsored National Science Foundation, was started three years ago with the aim of getting schools on-line. As well as Montgomery Blair, nine other schools are involved.

The director of the project is a Blair teacher, Mary Ellen Verona, who runs an array of projects on subjects such as testing the boiling point of water, measuring the length of shadows during the spring equinox, finding seismic data from a fake epicentre site, and monitoring pollution in a stream. Teachers put forward their own projects and then collaborate on them.

One anatomy teacher uses a digital camera to take pictures of cats he is dissecting and puts the images on the Web. He is working with the Virtual High School systems manager to construct a space below the images where pupils can discuss their work on-line, and even draw over the image to illustrate their points.

At the moment the main activity at Virtual High involves teachers setting up Web pages and communicating. Verona is disappointed that pupils are not yet using the facilities effectively.

At the regular high school, I asked the media specialist how much IT was being integrated into the school curriculum. She replied, "I don't see a lot of that yet. We try to incorporate the Internet, but we don't really know what's there yet."

Dave Redos, head of science, argues that nothing will change until computers are installed in classrooms, "Most teachers don't go out with their pupils let alone to a computer room." The Earth science room does in fact have five computers, all wired up, but they have trouble getting on-line. The school is going to be moving to a new building in two years, and the idea is that there will be a whole infrastructure of wires, and a changeover from 45-minute lessons to 90-minute lessons.

So, three schools in one on the same site. The Internet is bringing schools closer.

Vivi Lachs is a consultant in multimedia who is touring North America on a Churchill scholarship to look at technology for science. Her other reports appear in the Computers Update

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