DOWNEY — The red, white and blue bus with white stars is called the Computer Commuter.
Students who boarded it for the first time recently called it fun, but administrators in the Downey Unified School District are calling it an inexpensive and creative way to teach elementary school youngsters about computers.
The Computer Commuter, which made its debut at Rio San Gabriel Elementary School, will be rolling onto all of the district's 10 grade school campuses in coming months. It cost only $50,000 to put the computerized show on the road, half the cost of putting a computer lab in just one school, Downey educators said.
The school district decided three years ago that it wanted all of its students to be computer literate. Six computer labs were installed in 1983 and 1984 at the district's two high schools and four middle schools for $600,000. But the district figured that it would cost $1 million to outfit the elementary schools.
"Even if we could find the money, where could we put the labs?" said Donna Boose, director of elementary instruction, noting that the schools just did not have room for new computer facilities.
The answer was the Computer Commuter, a 76-passenger diesel school bus that carries 17 Apple IIe computers on board. The bus, driven by computer resource teacher Steve Dunn, will spend nine days at each elementary school during its spring tour to teach the Logo computer language.
Devised Computer Course
Dunn, a former third- and fourth-grade teacher at Gallatin Elementary School, said he spent hours last semester devising the computer course, homework assignments and teacher in-service training.
Since the bus stays for a short period, students undergo a four-week introduction to the computer and how it works before they ever board the bus, Dunn said. That way, he can get right into teaching Logo, a simple computer language.
Dunn, who has been teaching for seven years, says Logo helps children develop their thinking through the use of a computer. For example, if a child makes a mistake, he is urged to think about ways to correct it using simple commands. The program also encourages students to anticipate their next move and then execute it on the computer.
"I have seen third-grade kids critically thinking at a level that shocked me," said Dunn, 29, an avid fan of Logo. He used the program as a teaching tool with his former class.
Learned on His Own
Dunn said he got the job as computer resource teacher based in large part on the fact that he had attended many Logo workshops and in-service training on his own time.
"I wanted to become an expert in the field of Logo. It's the most useful educational tool to come along in a long time that's new and exciting for kids," he said.
Having a bus driver's license and knowing how to drive the vehicle didn't hurt either, Dunn added, although the bus will always be parked when students are working on board.
After Dunn picks up the Computer Commuter at the district maintenance yard every morning, he drives to one of the schools. At each campus, an electrical outlet has been installed to power the bus's computers, lights and air conditioning.
This semester, all fifth-grade students and some fourth-graders will take part in the introductory course, Boose said. There is also a free period from 3 to 3:30 p.m. during which teachers, aides and even parents can work on the computers.
Dunn said he hopes that by the time they get to middle schools, the students will be computer literate.
The computer bus has 16 stations where students sit in pairs. At the rear of the bus--the front of Dunn's classroom--there is a cabinet with his computer and printer and a board he writes on.
By the second day of instruction for teacher Sheri Cude's fifth-grade class, students were already familiar with the "turtle," a triangular object in the middle of the screen that acts as a cursor to carry out the children's commands to the computer.
Ordering 'Turtle' Home
Using a stuffed green turtle to illustrate the computer screen turtle, Dunn told students he had a special command to get the turtle back home in the position where it started.
"Type in the word home," Dunn said.
"H-O-M-E," the students said aloud.
"Press return," the teacher said. "What happened?"
"Aw, cool!" said an enthusiastic fifth-grader as he watched the turtle leave a diagonal trail on the screen as it returned to its home position.
"I really believe in this program," Dunn said after class.
Besides teaching the children critical thinking skills, the Computer Commuter also ensures that grade-school students will receive consistent instruction.
Dunn said that he spends four hours a day preparing for classes, but he does not mind the work. He calls the computer program "a professional carrot" that has renewed his enthusiasm for teaching.
Northern California Idea
District Supt. Manuel Gallegos said the bus is patterned after a similar one in Napa Valley, north of San Francisco.
The Downey district took a "surplus, ready-to-be-junked bus" out of storage, put in a rebuilt engine and brought it to the maintenance yard, where crews worked on the bus on and off for three months, Boose said.
With the original interior gutted, she said, new paneling, flooring, tables and benches, wiring, cabinetry and air conditioning were put in. Both the inside and outside of the bus were repainted.
The cost for all the work, computers and security system came in at just under the $50,000 the board of trustees had allocated for the project. Costs were kept down, Boose said, because most of the work was done by the district's maintenance department.
School officials hope their hard work and novel idea will pay off when students carry over what they learned to academic subjects and everyday life.
"I have an opportunity to go to every (elementary) school and teach every kid. Hopefully I'll teach them something for life," Dunn said.