Fifth-graders Anthony Turner, far left, Rylan Serna, teacher Nick Boyers and Adolfo Bermudez watch an interview the group conducted with a cancer survivor using a green screen as part of the InTECC lab at White Oak Elementary. In its second year at White Oak, the lab helps teachers incorporate technology into reading, writing, social studies and science curriculum. (Staff Photo: Keith Farner)
BUFORD — As Nick Lima worked with a software program to replicate a plant cell so that it could materialize out of a 3D printer, he thought about his classroom alternative.
“This is way better than sitting down and writing notes in a textbook,” said Lima, a fifth-grader at White Oak Elementary.
Lima is one of hundreds of students in the Lanier cluster who have a similar sentiment. A classmate of Lima’s, Will Shaw, was in a room next door also exploring a plant cell in a program that resembled a video game.
“It’s easier to wrap my head around the content when I’m allowed to have fun at the same time,” Shaw said.
That attitude is why this custom project-based learning model, which started four years ago at Lanier High, and moved to White Oak last year, is a success, teachers said. Teacher Mike Riley of Lanier’s Center for Design and Technology said the idea came to him when he was a teacher at North Gwinnett High and thought about merging robotics and video game programming.
“The big thing is we wanted to push something the kids are interested in, and they’re pretty much working their butts off now, which is great,” Riley said.
As the program at Lanier has grown, it now fills an entire floor at the school, and has plenty of equipment to let students’ creativity roam. Lanier earned a $40,000 grant from Motorola Solutions, and has more than 20 cameras, video and still, boom and wireless microphones and an $8,000 sound booth.
The ideas have spread to other schools in the Lanier cluster, like White Oak, and Lanier Middle, which calls its program TWIST, or Teamwork With Innovative Skills and Technology.
For White Oak fourth- and fifth-graders, teachers Nick Boyers and Matt Smith said they teach a six-week set of curriculum in three weeks, which gives their students the remaining three weeks to work on a project.
During a recent lesson, White Oak fourth graders conducted a video conference with a vice chief of a Seminole tribe in Oklahoma.
“It was a cool experience,” Boyers said. “They found a lot of information you can’t find in textbooks, you can’t find on the Internet. He was able to give them real deep information.”
Another group last year held a video conference with a doctoral student at Georgia Tech who focused his dissertation on the effects of cloud cover on solar energy. That coincided with a unit on weather, Boyers said.
At Lanier, one lesson asked the students to tie an aspect of science into the classic poem The Odyssey, and then demonstrate it using a form of technology.
“If they’re making a video game about The Odyssey, or a movie about The Odyssey, they’re more likely to remember the information because they have to digest it in order to demonstrate it,” Riley said.
It’s also paying off where it counts most with administrators: test scores. Riley said nearly 100 percent of his students passed the language arts test, while more than 50 percent exceeded expectations. The junior class alone stood out because about 70 percent exceeded expectations.
While technology is one component of the model, the teachers said they want to incorporate teamwork, too, which often comes outside of traditional rows of desks in a classroom. At White Oak, a bank that went out of business donated furniture like coffee tables and casual chairs to encourage group discussion.
“Get up, interact, collaborate as much as possible,” Boyers said. “We feel these are the skills that are really necessary moving into higher education and moving into the job force someday. We talk about learning how to disagree with somebody in an appropriate way.”
Riley said this learning model is not only unique to Gwinnett County Public Schools, it’s also in a class by itself across the country. And parents have become impressed because the program has incorporated input from the business community and technology experts around the country.
Part of that relationship comes in the form of internships where seniors work with business professionals. That’s the culmination of a process where freshmen learn several music and video software programs, then become specialists as sophomores and create products for sale as juniors.
Lanier sophomore Connor Henderson said he enjoys CDAT because he’s a project person.
“I feel like I get more of a hands-on feel, and implement it and make real world stuff,” he said.
The model also allows for students from a range of academic levels to work together. Riley said in one class at Lanier, there are four students who have Asperger syndrome, while another student, a freshman, is enrolled in the highest level math class, and will likely take online math classes at Georgia Tech next year.
While they study various subjects, from plant cells to The Odyssey to the bombing in Hiroshima, students agree that the technology and relaxed group atmosphere allow them to want to do more work.
“It’s a lot easier when you have people who want to do it, and have the same drive,” Lanier sophomore Catherine Newell said. “If people are doing the technology they like, they’ll want to do it.”