Small scale bold changes appear in public schools

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Consider this column a memo to New Mexico’s new public education boss, Hanna Skandera.
When thinking about system change, don’t think about reform. The trap is that words mean something. “Reform,” by definition, accepts the current system and proposes betterment by tweaking.

Mere “reform” of our public schools won’t get the job done, Ms. Skandera.
Fortunately, examples of “bold change” (in Gov. Susana Martinez’s slogan) exist in our schools. Three are summarized below, two science programs and a shifting of outlook for teachers:
The St. John’s College Tecolote Group brings teachers from all levels together, the Web site says, for “structured discussion of centrally important texts, thus bringing to life the idea that great books make great teachers. Tecolote aims further to help participants develop their practice of liberal education through their own initiatives and in general to nurture liberal learning at all levels in New Mexico.”
The invitation-only program is free and provides a small support stipend. Demand is high, typically exceeding the 64-person capacity each year, says Keiko Giacona, the project manager. Participation is statewide, but the teachers tend to come from Albuquerque and Santa Fe. “We welcome inquiries,” Giacona says.
Teachers attend four colloquia each year. The colloquia consist of tutorial and seminar. The program’s base is “the method of learning through discussion developed in the great books curriculum at St. John’s College.” The plan is to send teachers back “to their classrooms with a renewed sense of their vocation.”
The other two programs are for mid-school students, involve science and technology, and come with acronyms. Both strive to inspire youth to be successful in a science and technology-based 21st century workplace.
For the Santa Fe Institute, it is Project GUTS: Growing Up Thinking Scientifically. The Santa Fe Institute is about breaking barriers between traditional approaches, non-linear dynamics, and complex systems. Computational thinking links all. Project GUTS’ big idea is to interest students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and nurture them through high school.
The project operates as an after-school club supplemented by summer workshops. Participation is up to 30 schools around the state, says Irene Lee, principal investigator. Communities include Los Alamos, Chaparral and Peñasco. Lee’s article in the 2009 SFI Bulletin provides a good overview.
The objective, Lee writes, is to “produce students who can apply computational methods and analysis to complex systems issues. Thus the program has introduced complexity science and agent-based modeling to middle-school students.”
Teachers are club leaders. They get 20 hours of introduction. Students learn about opinion dynamics, shared resource management, and social networks. They run experiments and model a community-relevant application.
The home for the GEAR-Tech-21 (Geospatial and Robotics Technologies for the 21st century) program is the University of Nebraska extension service in Lincoln.
GEAR-Tech clubs, now in 12 states, commonly operate through 4-H, but can be in-school or after-school groups or part of a community organization. Schools in Albuquerque and Pojoaque have done GEAR-Tech summer camps, which mesh with existing robotics clubs. More camps are set for 2011.
The two-year program for mid-school students involves robotics, geographic information systems, global positioning systems (GPS), summer camps, competitions and instruction for the adults. After the first-year introduction, youth combine the technologies by building a robot and directing it to specific GPS coordinates. In a general sense, GEAR-Tech introduces students to “precision agriculture,” a concept that uses technology to treat each area within a field differently, allowing farmers to be more efficient and improve yields.
Parents, teachers, legislators and Ms. Skandera, check out these programs and change the system.
For more information see:
http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/outreach/SF/tecolote.shtml
http://www.santafe.edu/bulletin.html
http:/www.geartech21.org.

© New Mexico News Services 2011