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Computers popular tool at Kulm Public School

Jamestown Sun, Jamestown, North Dakota, February 13, 2006

By Keith Norman

Caption for photo: Seventh-grade students in Kulm use handheld computers in health class Thursday at Kulm Public School. The small computers are popular with students and teachers.(John M. Steiner/The Sun)


Technology, even in the rural schools, is continuing to get smaller and easier to use. The leading edge of one branch of the micro computer field can be found at Kulm Public School.

Students are using handheld computers although they are sometimes referred to as Palm Pilots, or PDAs, an acronym for personal digital assistant. Sandy Zahn, Kulm School technology coordinator, said each student in grades seven through 12 is issued one of these machines.

In the classroom they become the notebook shared by the teacher and the student. Questions, worksheets and even tests originating at the instructors laptop are wirelessly downloaded to the students handheld computer. Each students reply is displayed at the teachers computer, said Zahn.

Tom Nitschke, Kulm High School principal and health instructor, demonstrated this use during his seventh-grade health class Thursday. As the students came in and turned on their computers, a question appeared for them to answer.

If I had verbally asked this same question only two or three students would have responded, more students would have been thinking about the answer, but a couple of the kids would be sitting in the back daydreaming, said Nitschke. This way every student has to respond to the question.

Once completed on the handheld computer the assignment can be turned in simply by synchronizing with the teacher. Students and instructors can also establish individual chat sessions of dialogue without involving other students.

Its easy to ask the teacher questions without interrupting the class. said Dakota Aberle, a seventh-grade student at Kulm High School. She also feels the ability to access the Internet from wherever she is in the school building helps her learn.

Not only do these questions, worksheets and assignments get downloaded to the handhelds, they are also available on the Internet at the same time. A student home ill may not hear the banter between his classmates and the teacher but would receive the same information that was presented in the classroom, including future assignments, at the same time as the students in school.

But freedom from paper comes with some student responsibility. A fully charged battery keeps the little computer running about three hours, Zahn said. Students who dont remember to stick their handheld in a charger when the opportunity arises, usually over the lunch hour, are destined to be writing in a notebook during their afternoon classes.

This technology may have some additional future uses.

Some day we may not have storm days. Nitschke said. We can present information and assignments over the Internet they can download into their handhelds at home during bad weather.

Nitschke added that the same process might be used by a school operating four days per week to conserve fuel and cut costs.

The expansion of computers in the classroom at Kulm started back in 2003, according to Zahn.

The school was eligible for a Title 2 Part D grant from the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. The staff sought ways to put the best computer technology in the hands of the students, Zahn said. The project they launched could be called a miniature version of a laptop university.

The first phase of the project occurred in the elementary school, said Zahn. The grant was used to purchase tablet personal computers. These machines allow input by both the normal keyboard generally associated with a laptop but also recognize handwriting using a stylus on the screen.

As the first school to make widespread use of these computers, Kulm school staff had to be innovative.

Not only did teachers have to find ways to improve the curriculum, we had to design and have locally built the carts that hold the machines, Zahn said.

The tablet personal computers are used for kindergarten through sixth grade. Zahn said their larger size makes them easier for small hands to manipulate and the larger screen works better for the blockier writing of a small child. While the school doesnt have enough of the tablet PCs to issue one per student each teacher makes use of them at least one hour per day.

Any use of high technology comes with high costs. Kulm school has spent more than $300,000 in grant money on these learning tools.

But the school has also seen increases in test scores. Twice a year, spring and fall, Kulm school participates in the Northwest Evaluation Association or the NWEA test. This examination measures summer regression or how much learning is lost during June, July and August.

Our test scores are dramatically improving, Zahn said. The students are retaining more.

That has been demonstrated in the fall when teachers and students return to class.

If a teacher forgot anything over the summer the students will remind her, Zahn said.

The students also feel they learn more with the handheld computer. Nitschke credits that to the ease of operation and excitement of use inherent to the handheld computer.

Its really a great help with any assignment, said seventh-grader Jasmine Nitschke, and typing is easier than writing. Jasmine also plans to use the handheld computer in the future because, everythings in your pocket.

Jessa Lindgren, also a seventh-grade student, offered praise for the technology as well.

Its nice, she said. I can look up stuff on the Internet and I dont have to hand in assignments, just sync with the teacher.

Kulm Public School has been a pioneer in using this technology in North Dakota Schools, said Zahn. They hope that in the future other schools will make use of the same equipment and methods.

We hope to someday work with other schools, she said, and exchange information of what works best.

Sun reporter Keith Norman can be reached at (701) 952-8452 or by e-mail at js@jamestownsun.com

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