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Innovation education: Students' projects meld new technology, real-world skills

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A new class at Franklin Community High School is looking for ways to cut schools’ energy costs with solar power and help special education students master what they’re taught through tablet devices.

The course’s 22 students each selected individual innovation projects for the class. And as they work on their assignments, they’re also helping a Seattle-based technology company market a new product.

The new class was created by broadcast teacher Don Wettrick, who wanted a course that improved students’ research, communication and collaboration skills but also showed them how to use those skills outside of school.

Wettrick hand-picked students for the class, knowing the format wouldn’t work for everyone. Students select their projects and are graded based on the projects’ goals they set, whether those goals cover Indiana’s academic standards and how hard they’re working to attain the goals. To get a good grade, students need to be able to work independently and prove they’ve done everything possible to meet their deadlines.

The goal of the class is to start showing students the kinds of jobs they can get if they’re able to think and work creatively, Wettrick said.

“It’s getting them out of the school. It does not get more real-world than this,” he said.

Senior Klayton Harmon decided he wanted to focus on improving learning in special education classrooms.

Harmon had heard tablet devices, such as iPads, have improved special education students’ test and assessment scores, especially for autistic students. So he started talking with Franklin’s special education teachers and set a goal of getting 40 devices for eight of Franklin’s special education classrooms. Harmon is also looking into where to get the money to buy the devices.

Once Franklin’s special education students have the tablets and are able to use them, Harmon could track their test and assessment scores for any changes or improvements.

In pursuing their projects, students were told they could focus on issues the school district is facing, but Wettrick said he also expected them to research how their work could apply beyond Franklin.

Junior Daniel Lamm wanted to see if he could find a way to cut down on the school district’s energy costs by using alternative energy such as solar power. Lamm had heard about private companies using alternative energy to save money, and wondered why public school districts were not following their lead.

Lamm contacted Indiana-based solar companies so he could learn more about whether solar energy could power the high school. After researching products and services, as well as what Franklin typically spends, he thinks he’s found a way to save the school district at least $10,000 a year on the cost of energy at the high school by using solar power.

Lamm will meet with administrators later this month to present his findings, and he could make an informational presentation to the school board later this year.

While the students are expected to work independently, they also check in with Wettrick regularly in class and post blogs online. Wettrick wants to know specifics about what progress they’ve made, what unexpected challenges they’ve met and how they plan to overcome those.

To keep the students inspired, Wettrick arranged for video conferences between the class and Microsoft Vice President Anthony Salcito as well as author Daniel Pink. Wettrick previously worked with Microsoft as part of its innovative educator program.

The video conferences help show students what kinds of careers are available for them while the projects, regular updates and feedback are preparing them for the workforce, Wettrick said.

“I’m wanting them to grow their own digital brand. I want them to tweet their results. I want them to blog their results. I want them to become student experts in their field. I see them becoming a think tank for the school,” he said.

Wettrick is also posting video blogs about what the class is doing, and that was when he was contacted by another Washington company, based in a Seattle, about using its new computer.

The computer the company created costs about $2,500 but can be used by as many as 10 people for different projects simultaneously, and that kind of computer could be very valuable for schools, Wettrick said.

Typically schools pay at least $700 for every computer they buy, meaning a computer lab for 10 students would cost about $7,000. A school using the Seattle company’s computer for a 10-student lab would pay less than half of that, Wettrick said.

The company wants Wettrick’s students to get used to the computer and its software and then give them ideas on how the company can market what they’ve created to schools across the country. The computer arrived in Franklin this week, and Wettrick’s students have been using it to research and write papers for their projects.

As the students are completing their work they’re also conducting testing for the company.

“The best way to learn technology is to start playing around with it,” Wettrick said.

Part of the students’ task researching and marketing the equipment will be to see how other school districts in central Indiana would use a similar computer for their students. They’ll then select a district and train students there on how to use it, Wettrick said.

“A lot of cool, real-world experiences for them,” he said.

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