VAETS Uses Technology Across Curriculum

May 8, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The technology hub at the center of Alger Park Elementary School is actually a school within a school. It’s the Van Andel Educational Technology School (VAETS), and perhaps the model of the schoolroom to come.

The purpose of the tech school is to provide intensive inservice programs for teachers that will enrich student learning as well as teacher productivity.

“We primarily train the teachers and support them in the use of technology with their students,” said Ron Sjoerdsma, associate director of the VAEI and a professor in Calvin College’s Education Department.

“So, the primary focus is on the teachers and on training and providing them with assistance, even though we spend a lot of time with the students as well. What we’re doing is helping teachers integrate the technology into the curriculum.”

The tech school is an undertaking of the Van Andel Education Institute, part of the Van Andel Institute founded in 1996 by Jay and Betty Van Andel.

From the outset, the VAEI has been examining and evaluating the educational learning process, the purposes of education, the impact of technology, and the moral and ethical issues affecting K-12 education. A six-member VAEI Education Council oversees the institute’s programs.

Dick Oostenink, director of VAETS, said the idea behind the tech school was to add to the body of knowledge in education by creating an actual school in which some research and implementation could be carried on.

The VAEI completely funds the tech school, including the space at Alger Park Elementary, equipment, two full-time staff members and one part-time position. It’s comprised of a 2,000-square-foot computer lab with 30 student work stations and another dozen stations in a nearby workroom, all of which are connected through both wired and wireless networks to servers, the Internet and Grand Rapids Public School’s wide area network. 

The lab features Macintosh desktop and laptop computers and an assortment of multimedia equipment, including digital cameras, printers, scanners and VCRs. The school also provides individual computers, small clusters of computers within classrooms and laptops for teachers, Sjoerdsma said.   

In addition to the “hub,” the tech school incorporates two small technology workrooms within the sixth and seventh grade pods of Alger Park Middle School that can accommodate six to 10 students at a time. Currently, the tech school provides technical resources to more than 25 teachers and 500 students. Since last year, the school also has offered adult community education classes to Alger Heights residents interested in basic computer literacy, a program funded by the VAEI as well.

Students still follow the basic Grand Rapids Public School curriculum, but computers are integrated into every class and used for every subject of study.

“We’re observing that some of the teachers are embracing it wholeheartedly and some are embracing it with less enthusiasm, because what we’re really doing is asking them to change the way that they teach and change the learning process,” Oostenink said.

He said classrooms at Alger Park have really been reformed in the sense that they’re now moving towards a more student-focused program and curriculum rather than the traditional, teacher-centered curriculum in which the teacher does most of the talking.

“Now we’re seeing that many of the classrooms are making strides towards an engaged learning atmosphere where the students are more actively involved in constructing and building on their own knowledge system,” Oostenink said. “As students go through that process, the potential for retention is greater.” 

Sjoerdsma said community reaction to the school has been positive all around, and people “seem to treat it as a gift.” The school is now exploring ways it can use the Web and e-mail to connect with students’ homes and help involve parents more in their children’s education.

VAEI officials are looking ahead to the next potential project but officials have not yet decided what it will be.

“There are several options,” Sjoerdsma noted. “One might be a comparison school to what we are doing at Alger. We’re also beginning to explore some of Alger’s other curricular areas like science education. We are really focused on the Alger project right now and use it in the summertime to provide a model for other teachers.”

The summer program consists of three academies for teachers, primarily from around the state, who gather for week-long training in the integration and approach to learning used in the tech school.

When the VAETS was established in October 1998, the Van Andel Institute contracted with the Center for Educational Outcomes of the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N. H., to undertake a study of the school. The study has involved gathering data from the observations of teachers, students and parents and will attempt to measure the tech school’s impact on the education process. The study will further examine academic achievement measures, such as the MEAP.

The Center for Educational Outcomes is still collecting data from teachers and students, Sjoerdsma said. A summary report is expected sometime this year, but the VAEI intends to extend the study to include long-term follow up on participants.

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