Tech-savvy Tupper

TUPPER LAKE – The face of education is changing.

These days students carry thumb drives instead of binders. Where there used to be textbooks, there are computer screens, and some students are trading woodshop for robot building.

In an elective robotics class, several students sit at computers while a group of three boys are hunched over, working feverishly in the corner. They aren’t talking about girls, or sports or movies.

“OK, try that,” one of them says.

There’s an electronic hum and the shoebox-sized robot whirs to life, a small plastic block held aloft in its shiny metal grabber.

The robot is the successor of Big Mama, which was a finalist in the FIRST Robotics Competition at Clarkson University last year. Participating teams are given a list of specifications on things like the robot’s maximum size and how many motors it can have. The competition then pits the creations against one another. This year, the robots will place plastic cubes in baskets to earn points.

“When you go to this event, it’s like going to a sectional basketball game final,” said Bret Fancher, business and computer teacher and middle/high school technology coordinator. “It’s that intense.”

Thomas Sexton, the lead programmer for Tupper Lake’s Robojacks robotics team, went to last year’s competition and said some of the robots are quite advanced. Some of the teams get sponsors, and some of the competitors have been programming robots for five years.

Sexton has only been programming for about 15 weeks, but trial and error have helped him streamline the robot-building process and become more familiar with the program that runs the robot.

Fancher explained that the robotics course isn’t just about having fun. The young engineers must employ problem-solving skills, research, physics and computer programming to make their mechanistic creations come to life. Students taking the school’s digital design course also get involved by designing the Robojacks T-shirt.

“The class is cross-disciplinary, and it’s more like a college environment,” Fancher said. “Students do the research, they design the robot and then they build it.”

Fancher is mostly hands off until the students get stuck, but oftentimes he said they figure out how to solve a problem before he does.

“The skill I want to them to get out of it is perseverance,” Fancher said. “No matter what the task is, you do it to the best of your ability.”

Fancher has taught computer programming for 25 years, and he’s seen a lot change in that time. Computer programming classes used to involve learning a lot of code. Students usually found it tedious and had difficulty getting fully engaged in the subject.

As technology has expanded into homes and schools around the world, computer programs and websites have become more plentiful, as well as more user-friendly and accessible. The key to implementing technology in the classroom has made teachers like Fancher and Rebecca Buerkett master what they’re trying to teach students: how to do more with less.

Buerkett, the librarian, computer teacher and technology coordinator at L.P. Quinn Elementary School, is on the front line in preparing children for a technology-saturated future.

“I feel like our district hasn’t been able to put as much money into the hardware, the iPads and smartboards and things like that, but we have the staffing,” Buerkett said. “We have maintained the technology staffing in the schools.”

Like all school districts across the state, Tupper Lake has frequently faced annual slashes to the school budget. Even with those cuts, the district has managed to amass about 250 computers per building. The elementary school’s paradigm is to have three or four per classroom and two computer labs with multiple computers each. The high school has three or four big computer labs.

The labs make it possible for each student to use a computer, and students must use the classroom computers as a group. Filters based on categories or keywords are used to restrict access to potentially non-educational websites.

“Because our students are tech-savvy, because they’re digital natives, we think they know how to do everything, but they really don’t,” Buerkett said. “They don’t need to be shown how to get online, but they don’t necessarily know how to find quality sources or how to find the best stuff fastest.”

Buerkett uses several free websites and applications to teach her elementary-aged students computer skills. One website is Edmodo, which she uses to post topics and questions, which the students can then respond to.

“It’s completely closed, so the only people who can be on it are those who have been approved,” Buerkett said.

Websites that allow comments can open up the door for inappropriate behavior, including bullying. As Fancher put it, “Now, the playground is the whole world.”

To teach good Internet citizenship, Buerkett has to approve all content before the other students can see it. That means reading all comments submitted by students before they’re posted.

“It’s teaching them how to behave responsibly online,” Buerkett said. “You’re always going to have exceptions and you can’t control what people do, but you can teach them what’s right and what’s wrong. Not all parents supervise their kids all the time.”

Buerkett also teaches her students safety tips, like don’t use your first name in your username and don’t post photos with your house address in the background. Good English skills are also stressed.

“These 140-character devices like Twitter have actually hindered the English language,” Buerkett said. “Capitalization and punctuation goes out the window.”

Besides teaching rules of online conduct, Buerkett and Fancher said technology has opened up distance-learning doors for students that were previously closed. Classes not taught on campus – like sign language – can now be offered, and having resources online means students can access study materials from anywhere they have Internet access.

Access works both ways, though. When textbooks were tangible, they couldn’t be changed without printing a new edition. Now the sites can be changed easily, meaning teachers have to be able to adapt quickly.

“We have to get ahead of it the best we can, because if we’re solely reactionary, we’re going to be left behind,” Buerkett said. “In this age of digital learning, adaptability is the big thing. Can you be pliable enough to the situation to quickly morph into what you need to be?”

Computer programs like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word also evolve over time.

“Whatever they’re using right now is not going to look the same by the time they’re in high school,” Buerkett said. “They have to be comfortable playing around until they teach themselves how to do something.”

Fancher said variety is also key to exposing students to the vast array of options technology offers.

“My thing is to expose them to a bunch of programs,” Fancher said. “They never become experts at any of them, but by the time they get to college they’ll have experience with all of them.”

Looking forward, Fancher said he’d like to see the school get more bandwidth to better handle the district’s increased Internet usage. Cloud computing, which would probably be called Share Point and enable students to access and store assignments in a centralized location, is also in the works.

“We’re picking three or four things a year that will directly impact instruction, and we kind of hang our hat on that,” Fancher said. “We then have professional development sessions where we teach the teachers. The big thing now is home-to-school communication. There’s no more ‘The dog ate my homework.’ It’s all in the cloud.”

Parents can utilize technology, too. Two high school teachers, one in physics and the other in global studies and government, use an application called Remind 101 which sends out reminders for tests and quizzes to students and parents.

Buerkett said she would also like to begin a Makerspace program as part of the district’s recently acquired Twenty-first Century grant. The program would allow students to try different programs, including graphic design or music editing software, and to learn about them more in-depth.

“Things that I want to get into are too advanced for a 40-minute class, so I want to do some after school things,” Buerkett said. “The best learning is when you fail and try to find solutions to the problem. If they learn one thing from me it should be, don’t be afraid to try something.”

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or