The 80 seventh- and eighth-grade students on the Navigator team at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington solve problems on one of four touchscreen SMART Boards in math class, measure and record temperature fluctuations with high tech probeware in science, participate in international Skype sessions in social studies via a large computer screen, and use their laptops to do Web-based writing assignment in language arts.What’s just as impressive as the team’s wall-to-wall technology, though, is the way teachers have incorporated it seamlessly into their lesson plans to powerfully engage students in their learning.Thanks to a $5 million gift to the University of Vermont from the Richard E. & Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation in 2009, many more Vermont middle school students will enjoy Navigator-style learning in the future. The gift, the largest in the foundation’s history, will be used to establish the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at UVM. The institute’s mission is to put programs like the one at Edmunds, called I-LEAP — the Learning and Engaging Adolescents Project — in place at middle schools around the state over the next 10 years.”Today’s young people are immersed in technology everywhere but in school,” said technology entrepreneur Richard Tarrant. “Instead of asking students to power down the moment the school day starts, we need to bring technology into the classroom where, combined with good teaching, it can be a powerful tool for engaging young minds.” Deborah Tarrant of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation shows the difference between the technologies students use inside and outside of school at a December 21, 2009, press conference. (Photo: Raj Chawla)”Our goal for the I-LEAP program,” said Deborah Tarrant, “is to help schools bridge to the 21st century with a strategy designed specifically to attract, engage, and inspire tech savvy youth in their classrooms.””This important gift from the Tarrant Foundation will greatly improve educational outcomes in Vermont,” said UVM president Daniel Mark Fogel. “We couldn’t be more grateful for the foundation’s generosity.”Roots in MiltonI-LEAP was developed at UVM five years ago with funding from the Tarrant Foundation in partnership with teachers and administrators at Milton Middle School, where the program was piloted and is now in its fourth academic year. The second I-LEAP site was launched at Edmunds in September.Focused on the middle school years, a crucial developmental period when success or failure can have lasting consequences, I-LEAP has two major components.Schools receive both a substantial suite of hardware and software and extensive professional development for teachers and administrators on how to teach effectively, employing best middle-school practices, in a tech-rich setting.The professional development component of I-LEAP consists of an intensive graduate course at UVM for teachers and administrators, and, of critical importance, frequent, in-school follow-up visits over a period of years by institute staff to support teachers in embedding student-centered, technology-rich strategies into curricula. A website with further resources is also under development.The I-LEAP program targets one team of students and teachers in a school, laying the groundwork for other teams to experience and embrace the model later. At Milton nearly all teachers have taken the professional development course, and the school has invested in 30 netbook computers for each of the other three teams at the middle school.More than a “technology drop”The emphasis I-LEAP places on professional development distinguishes it from what had been the norm in the past: “technology drops” that brought equipment to schools but gave teachers little support on how to use it.”I-LEAP is the polar opposite of that approach,” said Tarrant Institute director Penny Bishop, an associate professor in UVM’s College of Education and Social Services, who directs the university’s Middle Level Teacher Education Program. “The institute’s goal is to not only foster widespread use of technology in Vermont schools, but also to create a cadre of teachers who confidently employ it in service of what we know to be exemplary middle school teaching practices.”I-LEAP’s focus on professional development is timely: falling prices and growing federal, state and community support mean that more new technology is entering schools every year. Vermont will receive $5.6 million in federal funds for K-12 technology investment in the next three years.Podcasts and SMART Board competitionsStudent projects at both Milton and Edmunds demonstrate how technology can be used to foster what research shows are the best ways to engage middle school students, from personalizing learning to bringing real world problems into the classroom to promoting peer-to-peer exchanges.Students in a social studies class at Milton visited a senior center, for instance, then created podcasts featuring narration, interviews, and music that were posted on the Web. The Edmunds math class uses its four SMART Boards to get teams of students out of their seats competing with one another to solve math puzzles and problems.Evidence of successWhile it is too early to have statistically valid quantitative measures of the program’s effectiveness, qualitative evidence that the program is engaging students, including disaffiliated students who are most at risk, is abundant.According to surveys Bishop and her colleagues have conducted, students in I-LEAP say learning is more interesting, meaningful, and relevant to their lives compared with their earlier school experiences, an evaluation shared by many parents.”There’s a point to what we’re learning,” one Milton student said.”My daughter’s grades have improved since being involved in this program,” said an Edmunds parent. “She has always had a problem with focusing, but now with the laptop, I have seen her sit, focused, completing her work. I really see the advantages of bringing our teaching methods current with technology.”Students are also better able to express their own voice, they say.Teachers report having engaged, alert students in their classes who take more pride in their work and personal responsibility for it.Edmunds language arts teacher Kathy Gallagher said all students are now turning in their homework, compared with an average of about three-quarters in the past. Edmunds social studies teacher Brent Truchon reported a marked change in classroom participation. “For the first time in the history of my teaching career, every student’s hand was raised,” in a recent class, he said.Growing reachAs technology prices drop, and school districts share in technology costs, the institute should be able to focus more on professional development and spread its resources to more schools in the future.It will also look to partner with others to extend its reach. The Tarrant Foundation and UVM recently formed a consortium with the Vermont Principals Association and VITA-Learn, a statewide organization supporting technology in education, to deliver the I-LEAP professional development program to six schools throughout Vermont with $200,000 in funding from the Department of Education. Those schools will in turn train other teachers in their regions.”We want to reach as many Vermont middle school students as possible with this innovative program,” said Richard Tarrant. “We think it’s a game-changer.”Read more about why middle school is a crucial stage for intervention.Source: University of Vermont.