By Ryan Cornell
Gone are the days when a stick of chalk, a board of slate and a stack of textbooks ruled the classroom.
Today's teachers and students have more access to information at their fingertips than ever before. And with the introduction of new and emerging technologies in local schools this year, including Google Chromebooks, Amazon Kindles and MakerBot 3D Printers, the 21st-century model of education has finally arrived.
At Peter Muhlenberg Middle School, seventh grade science teacher Natalie Rhodes has fashioned her old textbooks into a doorstop and has replaced them in the hands of her 25 students with a collection of Google Chromebooks.
The Chromebooks, which are cloud-based laptops powered by Google Chrome operating systems, were purchased for the school when the computers in its laptop carts and computer lab were under replacement. Instead of getting 50 new computers, Instructional Technology Resource Teacher Becke Coffman said the school received a set of 215 Chromebooks.
"We got four times as many Chromebooks as desktops and laptops, and we could get as many as the grade," she said.
She said the Chromebooks were distributed to the 200 seventh graders in January. Stonewall Jackson High School, Signal Knob Middle School and Central High School have also received the Google laptops, though she said Peter Muhlenberg is the only school where students use them on a daily basis.
Deb Cross, seventh grade history teacher at Peter Muhlenberg, said students are not just being consumers, but curators of their knowledge.
"It speaks to the way kids operate," she said. "It's the world they live in, it's the way they communicate."
Before 2014, teachers like Cross and Rhodes would present a lesson to the entire class or show a video and then hold a discussion afterward. That's all changed.
Students are using the Chromebooks to watch educational videos, answer multiple-choice quizzes, write blogs and record notes. Because the lessons are individualized, the students can move at their own pace and review lessons they might not understand.
"A lot of students press back on the TV and go back to see what they missed," Rhodes said. "They can't do that with a teacher."
She said each student has an email address they can use to send her questions once they're at home or don't want to disrupt other students.
"It takes off some of the social pressures that middle schoolers face regarding the status of their work," she said.
Although it might seem like teachers such as Rhodes can relax and let their computer screens take over, she said it's the result of hours of prep work the night before as well as a summer of revised lesson plans.
"It's a fundamental shift in how teachers plan and prepare," she said. "From a planning aspect, I spend twice as much time planning now and I try to plan everything in such detail."
The added work is worth it if it means students are retaining more of what they learn, she said.
One of her kids using the Chromebooks, seventh grader Gracie Holzbauer, said she was out sick from school for weeks from mononucleosis, but was able to keep up with the rest of the class though one of the laptops.
"Instead of me just missing all the classes, we did Google Hangouts where you can video chat and I wasn't missing her classes," she said. "So it was like I was still here."
Jakob Harpine, who doesn't have access to the internet at home, said he's been able to learn faster with the laptop than the traditional textbook. He added that it also cuts down on one of his least favorite activities.
"I don't like writing," he said. "I like typing better than writing because I have horrible handwriting."
One of his classmates, Ben Wright, said he liked being able to move at his own pace.
"You can go and do what you want and have like a range of options," he said.
Rhodes said she plans to use the Chromebooks for more project-based learning in the year ahead.
This flood of new Internet-connected devices could also prove to be a problem.
Rhodes said that the students can't get distracted by external websites such as Facebook and Youtube because she's constantly monitoring their usage. However, she said the school is hovering around the maximum number of devices on the network.
Mark Johnston, director of human resources in Shenandoah County Public Schools, said the division's schools have increasingly been bumping up against its bandwidth capacity and have been maxing out its Internet usage multiple times per day due to the amount of programs being run and videos being streamed.
This can result in websites timing out, a sluggish connection speed or an inability to access different sites, he explained.
"If you think about it, it's like the size of a pipe," Johnston said. "It's served us well until this time. What we're finding out is increasingly we're bumping up against it."
He said the Shenandoah County School Board will consider allocating more funds in its next annual budget for higher bandwidth.
Seventh graders at Warren County Middle School also have ditched their textbooks. The science department received 75 Amazon Kindles at the beginning of the school year and they have completely replaced the hardcover backpack busters previously carried by students.
Seventh grade science teacher Dasha Sealock said her students are using the Kindles several times a week to watch videos and read or listen to the material.
"They're using the text-to-speech, so they're actually listening to that book," she said. "You know how some prefer audio listening and others prefer visual to reading? It differentiates for that learner, their style and what works best for them."
Another feature included in the Kindle is a dictionary tool that kids can use to find the definition of a word they don't know. Sealock said students have the opportunity of checking out a flash drive loaded with the Kindle material from the school's library and taking it home to study.
One of her students, Dagen Young, said she liked being able to jump to different chapters without flipping through pages and add bookmarks and highlight certain passages.
"It's easier than having to go find a book and look for what you need," she said. "You just open a chapter and read it. It makes reading a little bit more fun."
Sealock said she's recognized this positive change in her students.
"I see enthusiasm for learning," she said. "There's motivation when it comes to reading, and they like the technology
When Cody Buterbaugh, first year engineering teacher at Warren County High School, received a MakerBot 3D printer for the class in January, it was like Christmas came a second time.
The school's 3D printer is one of three given to public high schools in Warren County through the Warren County Educational Endowment. It uses spools of polyactic acid heated at 230 degrees Celsius to create objects designed in the Autodesk Inventor software.
Buterbaugh said the same software is used by professional engineers in all fields.
"And what's nice is these are used in industry, military and even higher level education, so they're seeing it now so when they get to college or go to the military or work for someone, they had one of these and they've used it before," he said.
He said an iPhone case, which one of his students designed and created, takes about an hour and a half to print.
"So part of their [Project Lead the Way] curriculum is that they have to design something," he said. "When they design something, that's great as virtual, but now they can actually print it and apply it."
Seth Jacobs, a ninth grader in the class, was able to design the individual components of a car in Autodesk Inventor
He said he's planning on becoming an engineer after high school, so taking the class and creating the projects was a positive experience for him.
Massanutten Academy is hoping to soon obtain a 3D printer of its own. The Woodstock boarding school is part of the Project Lead the Way curriculum as well.
Frank Polito, an engineering teacher at the academy, said the dramatic decrease in prices among 3D printers has resulted in its rising popularity among schools.
"Three years ago, it was $50,000," he said. "Now, it's $5,000."
Riverfront Christian School added its 3D printer in February. Elizabeth Coffey, technology information specialist, said that they spent $400 on the kit that their high school students assembled.
Engineering students at the school not only learned how to design prototypes in Autodesk Inventor, but also were taught how to remove viruses from computers, back up files, install hard drives and build a peer-to-peer network.
"A lot of people don't realize that Riverfront has a high school at all," she said. "We do have a high school and we can compete with your mainstream education."
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org