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Technology Tested in This Computer Lab

High-speed Internet connections, surround-sound speakers, a digital chalkboard--Mater Dei High's Dimension 3 classroom has it all. The school is experimenting to see which gadgets are useful in teaching and which are not.

May 03, 2000|ANN L. KIM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mater Dei High School's new strategy for integrating technology into everyday learning can be summed up in eight words by Principal Patrick Murphy:

"Pile it in one room and watch it."

That is the idea behind a $250,000 classroom rigged with laptop computers at every desk, high-speed Internet connections, surround-sound speakers, a retracting projection screen and a digital chalkboard that saves scribblings to a hard drive.

With technology constantly changing but its practical applications not always immediately clear, Mater Dei's planning committee thought to turn one classroom into a laboratory where teachers and students can try out new gadgets to figure out what works and what doesn't.

That's how the Santa Ana parochial school's Dimension 3 classroom was born.

Renovations to the room began last summer, when wiring, new desks and a computer station for the teacher were added. The laptop computers arrived in January.

Three months into teaching with the computers, English teacher Melissa Rydjeski and religion teacher Steve Viau are still finding new ways to integrate the technology into their lesson plans.

The students use the computers a few times per week at most, and although they seem interested in them, they don't admit to being impressed by the innovation.

"I like the computers," said 15-year-old sophomore Jessica Ramirez. "But we don't notice them as much as the adults do."

But this nonchalant attitude is precisely why computers are necessary in the classroom, Mater Dei's teachers said--to catch the attention of teenagers who, with their video games and home Internet surfing, are tough to keep engaged.

Viau, in his comparative religions course for seniors, has assigned students a 30-minute Power Point presentation instead of a traditional term paper. He has used the in-class Internet access and surround-sound speakers to introduce students to Buddhist temples, Hindu music and Tibetan chants.

"Ideally, I'd love to pull up a Web site where you could smell the incense," Viau said. "I think the more senses one gets involved in the learning experience, the deeper that experience is."

Rydjeski uses the Dimension 3 classroom with her sophomore honors English classes and has taken her students to museum Web sites where artifacts from the Civil War gave them a sense of the time period they were studying.

She is also planning to create a cyber guide for the next novel her class will be reading, Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God." A work sheet will require students to visit various Web sites for information relating to the book and answer questions.

Because computers in the classroom tend to build on traditional teaching practices, it's not yet clear that they actually boost students' test scores, said Brian Stecher, a senior social scientist who studies education at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica.

"Nobody has a good sense of whether these powerful tools have some lasting impact in the long term," Stecher said.

Still, he is impressed by the forward-thinking planning of Mater Dei.

"The idea that someone would actually experiment with an innovation for a couple of years and test it out before implementing it is widely laudable," he said. "You don't see that too often in education policy."

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