11.17.2016Community

One tablet, one student, thousands of STEM career options

By: Suzanne Guillette

Nine-hundred students poured into Isaac Middle School’s gymnasium on a temperate October evening in Phoenix. They wiggled eagerly in line, waiting to be handed their very own mobile devices.

Axel Verona-Lopez, a seventh-grader whose cousin is a programmer, was already making career plans with his new tablet. “I want to be a coder,” he said proudly.

The celebratory event at the school in Phoenix is one of dozens across the country to get students in underserved communities excited about technology in the classroom, teach them how to use tablets in their schoolwork, and to kick off a year of digital learning ahead. 

Isaac is one of 25 schools that are receiving devices this fall as part of Verizon Innovative Learning, an initiative of the Verizon Foundation that provides mobile technology and professional training for teachers to underserved schools across the United States. There are 46 Verizon Innovative Learning schools across the country.

In addition to giving students with tablets and data plans that allow access to the internet 24/7, the program provides each school with a full-time, onsite learning coach from Digital Promise, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing digital education at all levels of learning.

The learning coach oversees a team of student technology leaders who help their peers and teachers troubleshoot. Additionally, Verizon Innovative Learning storytellers record unique ways their school is using the new technology so that teachers across the U.S. can benefit.

After they received their tablets, students were able to test out other advanced technologies.

On one side of the gym, there were cardboard virtual reality headsets. Students visited an aquarium, went on safari, and explored the inner workings of the brain in 3-D.

On one side of the gym, there were cardboard virtual reality headsets. Students visited an aquarium, went on safari, and explored the inner workings of the brain in 3-D.

On the other, students used smart phones to race an app-controlled BB-8 Droid, the robotic character from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.

Mario Ventura, the superintendent of the Isaac School District, watched as boys and girls cruised robots around an obstacle course on the floor. “This has been a big dream of mine to close the information gap,” he said as a droid zipped by. “It’s as important as having access to clean water.”

Isaac Middle School is located in a low-income area of Phoenix, where the median cost of a home is $40,000 and the entire student body qualifies for the federal government’s free and reduced-cost lunch program. Until now, most of these students have had limited access to technology, at school and in their homes.

With this in mind, Isaac Middle School parents also will receive instruction on how to use the devices.

Sara Crawford, a professional learning manager at Digital Promise, explained that this way, providing tablets at underserved schools can help a student’s entire family.

“I’ve been blown away,” she said. “Students are using translation software to help their parents and grandparents overcome the language barrier, which could really help to bridge the gap between home and school. This is huge.”

Students used smart phones to race an app-controlled BB-8 Droid, the robotic character from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.

The devices also help extend the reach of in-class learning. Rick Sypel, a seventh-grade math teacher, is going to “flip” his classroom. His 40 students will watch virtual lectures at home and take notes, so that when they sit together in class, they can do their homework and receive more one-on-one attention from him.

As the event drew to a close, students began to slip away toward home, engrossed in the new worlds their tablets facilitated. A seventh-grader and aspiring writer already had her nose in a just-downloaded book.

Sypel stood out in the parking lot, saying goodnight to students and their families. To kids passing by, he joked, “Don’t stay up all night with that thing—charge it!”

About the author(s): 
Suzanne Guillette’s work has appeared in Tin House, O Magazine, Quartz and the Rumpus. She lives in New York City.