Pittsburgh region educators rely more on technology, less on lectures

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2013, 8:42 a.m.

When students in Clyde Qualk's physics class know the answer to a question, they don't have to raise their hands. Sometimes, they don't have to speak.

Qualk, who teaches in Bethel Park High School, occasionally lets pupils text their answers. The results are sent Qualk's phone, then post to a poll projected on a screen in front of the class that updates instantly with answers.

The technique is just one of many technological touches Qualk uses to engage students. He is among educators across Western Pennsylvania who are incorporating innovative approaches into their teaching styles.

“It's technology they have at their hands,” said Qualk, a teacher of eight years who previously worked as a chemical engineer.

Educators know they're preparing students for careers that could involve technology not yet invented. Working the latest advancements into lesson plans ensures children will have the necessary groundwork to be ready to use it.

“One of the challenges of teaching is, you constantly have to know what's going on with new technology,” said Jade Leung, honors biology teacher in Shaler Area High School. “It's coming in droves.”

Leung conducted a lesson in which students developed scripts, characters and animation for a virtual cartoon to learn about the effects of bacteria on humans, such as anthrax or leprosy.

The program, called Go!Animate, lets students work in groups on school-issued laptops. Each group shows its cartoon to the class, so everyone gets the lesson.

“I don't like them memorizing definitions and regurgitating them back to me,” said Leung, a teacher of six years. “I will spend days lecturing; I don't discredit that. But once they have the background knowledge, I want to see them demonstrate that knowledge.”

Students say the strategy works.

“I'll remember more (working on the Go!Animate project) than taking notes,” said Hanna Tappe, 14, a freshman from Shaler.

During class in Bethel Park, Qualk uses an interactive smart board, which he can manipulate with a remote control to change from one screen to the next, zoom in or out, even play video downloaded from his cellphone.

He used such a video to help students visualize acceleration recently. A student took a video of a tiny car racing down a ramp. Qualk played that video on the screen, stopping it repeatedly to mark the car's descent with dots on the board and explaining how to view acceleration by the increasing distance between marks.

Students say the tactics resonate with them.

“Some teachers lecture every day,” said Adam Larson, 17, a junior. “He has fresh, different lessons.”

Inventive teachers focus on students' future, starting as young as elementary age. Paula Giran, a science and math teacher at Hillcrest Intermediate School in Norwin School District, knows that requires creative lesson plans.

“I'm not a copy-and-paste kind of girl,” Giran said. “You need to keep up with the outside world and lessons have to change with that.”

In light of the Marcellus shale industry in the region, Giran incorporates lessons on geotechnical engineering into curriculum to get her fifth-grade class thinking about possible jobs in the field. She recently asked a female biomedical engineer who makes artificial hearts to speak to the class.

“We really try to get down and dirty,” said Giran. “We want them to take something away when they leave the room.”

At Elizabeth Forward High School, innovation is in the environment. Using a $165,000 Grable Foundation grant, the school's library underwent a complete renovation this year from a simple space with shelves to an open room with flat-screen TVs, a performance space, a coffee cafe and recording and television studios. Students can use it for relaxation or classwork.

“Kids don't look at school as a cool place,” said Superintendent Bart Rocco. “This is a cool place.”

Down the hall, the Entertainment Technology Academy is a classroom like none other, with brightly colored walls, a sparkling ceiling, low couches and pop-art posters. Here, students collaborate to develop apps for smartphones and computer games through programming, art and storytelling classes. A team of students is making a trivia game app about the Andy Warhol Museum.

The program, started last spring with 30 students enrolled, has drawn more than 200 to the elective classes.

“It's really appealing that we'll eventually make our own app,” said Lily Hunt, 17, a senior who hopes to become a game designer. “It's broadened my horizons.”

Heather Hibner, who teaches several classes in the program, said that when it comes to keeping curriculum current, it helps to consult the students.

“You have to let your guard down and ask the kids,” she said. “Don't be afraid to not know.”

No matter their success, innovative educators don't stick with techniques for long.

“The kids stay 16 and you just keep getting further away,” said Rocco. “You have to be progressive. The question becomes, ‘What can we do next?' ”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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