Schools take high-tech to next level in classrooms

Central Florida schools are taking technology to a higher level by using 3-D projectors, USB digital microscopes and other devices to engage and instruct a generation of students accustomed to interactive technology and social media.

OCOEE - A 3-D volcano spurting lava leaps from the screen and hovers 5 feet above the ground. The cone splits open, exposing its magma chamber.

Moments later, a dolphin appears on the screen and darts toward an audience that is wearing 3-D glasses in the dark. The skin and flesh peel off the fish, showing its skeletal system - bone by spiny bone.

It's not the latest 3-D movie playing at an IMAX theater, but a lesson in eighth-grade science at Ocoee Middle School using a projector equipped with stereoscopic hardware designed for the classroom.

Central Florida schools are taking technology to a higher level by using 3-D projectors, USB digital microscopes and other devices to engage and instruct a generation of students accustomed to interactive technology and social media.

"It really catches my attention," said 13-year-old Ocoee student Madeleine Magrino. "We can go into cells and see how they work much better than with a textbook or a piece of paper."

Ocoee Principal Sharyn Gabriel said the 3-D projectors are getting the job of education done.

"If the technology doesn't provide students instruction, engagement and the ability to produce content, then we don't use it," she said.

The Mitsubishi XD600U Projector, with Texas Instruments technology, retails for $1,895, and each $100 pair of Xpand 3-D glasses is sold to schools for $54. However, Xpand donated 100 glasses to the school.

In addition to the 3-D projector, officials at Ocoee Middle have provided students with 120 iPad2s and two dozen iPhone Touch devices for note-taking, tests and managing their schoolwork over a districtwide virtual network.

Students leave the devices in the classrooms so teachers can share them with other pupils.

A state law passed in May requires that school districts in Florida, already a leader in virtual education, transition to only "electronic materials" delivered by Kindles, iPads and other similar technology by 2015.

James Chan, vice president of marketing for Mitsubishi Electric Visual Solutions America, said "today's children are no strangers to modern display technology … to capture their attention and keep them engaged, the educational bar needed to be raised."

Other Central Florida schools are using similar technology as well.

Mel Pace, director of media and technology for Osceola County schools, said some classrooms will start using SMART 3-D document cameras that cost $800. Instructors can download 3-D images from the company's website, Google 3D Warehouse or create their own using Google SketchUp.

Oviedo High School students enrolled in the Bioscience Technology Program at the Seminole County school use highly complicated machinery reminiscent of a mad scientist's lab: thermal cyclers, micropipettes and vortex machines, among others.

Many of these machines, donated by local partners and purchased through grants, are used in DNA fingerprinting. A DNA-separating device called a gel-electrophoresis apparatus starts at $500, and the molecular imager is about $20,000.

Principal Robert Lundquist said the machinery is expensive, but its purpose outweighs cost.

"Our goal is to create an environment in which the students are prepared for an advanced degree in bioscience fields," he said.

Officials in Volusia County sidestep high-tech and focus on Edmodo, a free, Web-based social-media program. Students can take tests, watch videos related to a classroom lecture and receive virtual badges as incentives.

"It's like Facebook but specifically for students and teachers," said Don Boulware, director for technology services for Volusia County Schools. "Students and administrators can bring their own technology or devices and use them to connect to Edmodo."

Though some research supports using high-tech devices in the classroom, experts caution against too much emphasis on technology and not enough on old-fashioned teaching.

"We do have to be careful with the 'novelty effect' of some of this technology," said Chad Dorsey, president of Concord Consortium, a nonprofit research-and-development organization based in Concord, Mass. "You have to ask yourself, 'What does this technology bring to learning that wouldn't be available otherwise?' "

But Dorsey said visualization is a powerful area for the development of such devices as the 3-D projectors.

"The concept of molecular simulation is hard to lecture or describe to students, but explaining it using a 3-D projector image really helps those students gain an understanding of a process that spans every living organism."

Deandre Shelton, a 12-year-old Ocoee student, said the 3-D technology definitely appeals to him.

"You look at these images coming off the screen and think, 'Wow, that's cool!' " the seventh-grader said. "But that helps me remember more than just taking notes and reading a book. It's actually teaching you."

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