New Tech helps us understand how to:
+ Update the classroom to reflect the college and career environments students will enter after graduating from high school
+ Challenge students to explain what they are learning and why it is relevant to them
+ Increase innovation in STEM instruction
Throughout 2011 and 2012, the Cross County School District welcomed 14 groups from across Arkansas for study tours. Four hundred people traveled to this small Arkansas Delta town, including parents, community leaders, and legislators. Even then Governor Mike Beebe visited Cross County High School, one of a few pioneering New Tech schools that are sparking curiosity about a new approach to STEM education in Arkansas.
Students showed the visitors around, demonstrating their typical classroom experiences, which involved working in teams on hands-on learning projects. Using computers provided by the school, students communicated and collaborated through an online learning management system and delivered presentations on a regular basis.
Such 21st century skills are key features of schools in the New Tech Network, a national nonprofit organization that works with districts to develop innovative public high schools. New Tech, a STEM Works initiative, is active in 18 states, including Arkansas.
Former Cross County School District superintendent Dr. Matt McClure has been instrumental in bringing New Tech to Cross County. After asking visitors what strikes them about the project-based learning students engage in, many point to the students’ level of engagement, marveling that students are “comfortable verbalizing what it is that they’re doing in the classroom for 60 adults.”
All New Tech schools challenge students to verbalize what they learn, an approach they believe prepares students for teamwork scenarios in the workplace in which a group draws on the individual strengths of team members to get the job done. Such skills go beyond preparing students to excel at standardized tests.
The New Tech program, like many other new STEM programs, emphasizes deep integration of technology, professional development, and coaching throughout the school year alongside project-based learning. Experts believe these elements help more students meet the demands of the 21st century workforce.
Frank Holman, former superintendent of Lincoln School District, notes how eagerly students take on the curriculum’s real-world challenges. These take the form of open-ended questions like, “What would it take for a community to establish a thriving community on Mars?” or “How can a school impact local and global food security?” “It was unbelievable when I saw students taking ownership of their learning and the whole culture of ownership changing the high school,” Holman says.
McClure explains that the New Tech system is set up explicitly for that purpose. “The goal is that kids never have to ask, ‘Why am I learning this?’” he says. “It’s inherent in the project that to be able to do the project, they have to learn the material.”
Educators strongly endorse Arkansas’s New Tech schools, demonstrating their value to the state’s STEM strategy. Because the schools are still new, the network cannot yet show the state how the program benefits the STEM pipeline in the long term, as older programs can. However, Cross County High School has recently reported a significant increase in students’ ACT scores, for which it won a 2012 College Readiness Award from the Arkansas ACT Council.
Implementing New Tech is not without challenges. Many students need time to acclimate to this more active learning style, and implementing New Tech schools requires heavy investments of time and resources through professional development and technology. Parents, community leaders, and school board members strive to secure the necessary funds for Cross County and Lincoln School Districts.
Given the positive attention the New Tech Network is attracting throughout the state, school boards and their communities may be willing to take on these challenges. Arkansas now has 14 New Tech schools with more planned in the future, signaling that in the coming years this initiative can expand to become a major component of the state’s commitment to improving STEM education.