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Steve Napear

Jim Cox
Roger Wynn
Mountain Empire High School

UC San Diego and SDSC Partner with Industry
to Help Bridge Digital Divide

A fter an investigative telecommunications study, the Federal Communications Commission recently reported that rural Americans with low incomes might not receive access to advanced telecommunications, such as high-speed Internet access, if provisions are left to market forces alone. To help bridge this potential digital divide, UC San Diego and SDSC have been working with the World Wide Wireless Web Corporation to provide a rural San Diego county school with high-speed Internet access, equipment, and curricula. Classroom 21, as the project with Mountain Empire High School is called, promotes equal access to telecommunications systems by allowing high school students in a rural setting to experience the same technology available in urban areas. After a full school year of Classroom 21, achievement test scores are demonstrating the program's success.

Students who participated in Classroom 21 scored significantly higher than their peers on this year's Stanford Achievement Test 9 (SAT9), which is an annual test measuring basic skills in reading, language arts, and mathematics that is administered to all California students in grades 2-11.

"These scores are an indication that the program helped those students most in need of academic enrichment," said Greg Ryan, school superintendent for the Mountain Empire district. "Additional preliminary results, such as improved classroom reading and writing skills, also indicate that the program is clearly accomplishing its goal of enriching the education of these students through science and technology."

The difference was particularly noticeable among those students who fall at the bottom third of their class: scores of Classroom 21 students were 38% higher than their non-Classroom 21 counterparts.

Fully equipped with new personal computers, printers, a large screen display, computer-friendly desks, and whiteboards, Mountain Empire's Classroom 21 occupies a freshly remodeled room. Students in grades 10–12 were able to participate in the program with classes ranging from English, government, and history to intermediate algebra and chemistry. The students spent approximately an hour per subject: conducting research via the Internet, learning how to use various software packages, and honing their typing and general research skills. In an effort to improve the students' communication and organization skills, they often convened their laboratory exercises in small groups and then summarized their team's research efforts in class presentations.

Participating students indicated that the first year of Classroom 21 was successful, as most of the high schoolers felt that their research, typing, communication, and overall academic skills had greatly improved. Several students reported an increase in their grades. "For instance, one student had a C in English and a D in History last year while this year's grades increased to B's in both subjects," said Mountain Empire High School Principal Jim Cox. "This student attributed the improved grades to Classroom 21's use of the Internet. She said that it was easier for her to stay focused on her research assignments, and that she was also more interested in the information available via the Web due to its wide array of content."

A goal of Classroom 21 was to determine if specific subjects could be taught better from the Web or from a standard classroom. "We determined that the Web access definitely benefited the majority of participating students, particularly in the areas of history and English," said science teacher Roger Wynn, who served as Classroom 21 coordinator at Mountain Empire this year. "One of our English teachers actually said that he could not imagine conducting his class without the Web now and hopes to have access again next year."

Wynn and several of his fellow colleagues participating in the Classroom 21 program were already familiar with the integration of computing into the classroom setting--thanks to their participation in SDSC's Supercomputer Teacher Enhancement Program (STEP). The STEP program, which was funded by the National Science Foundation as an SDSC outreach project from 1993 to 1997 and continues as an SDSC project, provides high school teachers from San Diego and Imperial counties with an opportunity to learn about the uses of computers in scientific research. The Mountain Empire teachers took lessons learned in STEP and applied them to their Classroom 21 courses.

Consisting of nearly one-third Hispanic students and one-tenth Native Americans, more than half of the Mountain Empire School District's population lives at or below the federal government's poverty level. Because of these financial hardships, it isn't surprising that most of the Classroom 21 students do not have home computers. Nevertheless, these same students are becoming very knowledgeable about computing technology and the Internet via Classroom 21.

"Our goal now is to use the results of the experiment to build an on-going program," said Steve Napear, SDSC associate director for Science and Technology Outreach. "The SAT9 test scores, along with the students' testimonies, clearly encourage expansion of Classroom 21. By building a team of local industry, local schools, and the local community, UCSD and SDSC continue to play critical roles in enriching all of our lives." --KMB *