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CA Curious

Technology and Neurodiversity

October 20, 2022

Each year the technology services department is asked to provide training for new employees, new students, and those returning community members who may need a bit of a refresher after the summer break. While this isn’t the only professional development or training the department offers, it tends to be similar each time. How do I get to my OneDrive? How can I distribute pages to my students in OneNote? What is my Blackbaud ID, and why am I being asked to change it again?  

This year, however, offered a welcome change. As part of a faculty professional development day, I had the privilege of joining Kathy Sullivan, Director of Professional Development at the Hill Learning Center, to co-host a Supporting Neurodiverse Learners Workshop. Together, we leveraged our shared expertise in child development and educational technology to connect how CA can better leverage our on-campus technology to reflect and respond to the latest research on best practices in supporting neurodiverse learners. 

During the presentation, Kathy addressed the various ways that neurodiversity might shape executive functioning—influencing organizational skills, time management, and even the very ways in which neurodiverse students might process information in ways different from their peers.  

In turn, I walked our faculty through the student and parent Blackbaud user experience, highlighting some of the functionality that will be crucial in helping to bolster executive functioning and address the specific and varying needs of our neurodiverse community members.  

For example, in the Blackbaud Assignment Center, I demonstrated how to break down multi-step assignments into discrete tasks and how to change the overall Assignment Center view to be more streamlined and less visually overwhelming. Kathy was able to showcase a few apps that aid with time management.  

While most of these tricks may not have been new to faculty, considering them in the context of neurodiversity was a new and needed intervention. In developing a more nuanced understanding of the information processing needs of our neurodiverse students, what might have been just another feature became something more—a  powerful way to support the learning needs of all our community members. 

Since the faculty workshop, I’ve presented similar information to all the 7th graders during their advisory period and to the 9th graders during their Community Day program. Both programs have walked students through Blackbaud, demonstrating ways they can reverse engineer multi-step assignments and use task creation for more than just their homework. In the 9th-grade program, students were quick to ask questions, sharing tips and tricks they had learned along the way with their classmates.  

There are ways that parents can support their students with this technology at home. In the coming month, I will share a new training video to guide parents through some of the tips and tricks I have discussed in these programs. Parents will learn how to aid their students in tweaking Blackbaud to meet their unique learning style and needs best. Stay tuned! 

The opportunity to work closely with students, faculty, and families has been something that I have sorely missed since the start of the COVID pandemic. I look forward to working more closely with you all on the practical and developmental use of technology both in and out of the classroom, and not just the nuts and bolts of it all.  

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Technology & Innovation

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Chutes and Ladders

October 28, 2021

There are too many words to describe the rollercoaster that our community has been on regarding all things Cary Academy technology. Never would have thought that I would be discussing system installs, policies, or computer distribution information this late in the year (or later) – yet here I am. 

For the Information Services department, this year has been less like a rollercoaster than a game of Chutes and Ladders, with the final space being the end of the 2021-2022 academic year. Fortunately, CA has had many more “ladder” experiences but there has been one big “chute”–missing computers—that we’ve been looking out for.  I am happy to say that we have passed “the big one”, I hope! 

You may have heard the rumor, which I am quite happy to confirm, that there is a handful of shiny new computers on campus. While it is not the complete shipment, it’s enough to start getting new machines into some students’ hands. The remaining bulk of the machines are still out in a warehouse, boat, or truck; however, there is a good chance that they may arrive at the end of November (*knock wood*).  

Once machines arrive, it is hard not to want to emulate Oprah by standing in the center of the Quad, pointing and yelling “You get a computer!” to everyone that passes by. Sadly, however, there is a lot to be done before we can start distributing machines to users. Thankfully, that process is already well underway; we are diligently working through our checklists to ensure that each machine received is in full working order, loaded, and ready for use by the time it reaches our students. On that front, keep an eye on your inbox for more information coming early next week. This is a good “ladder.” 

A second great “ladder” has been the department’s ability to provide experiential learning to our Computer and Networking Essentials (CANE) students. Mr. Rokuskie has done a fabulous job getting students who have, or are currently taking, a CANE course ready to act as student technology prefects for the community.  

It has always been a goal of the department to provide students the opportunity to intern within the Information Services department. Our CANE class teaches students about hardware components, troubleshooting, and the skills they would need to become an IT support specialist. Students who excel in the program and are selected to intern, earn the title of Technology Prefect and are part of the Cary Academy Helpdesk team. It has been very exciting to see students formally helping members of the community. 

I cannot express how impressed I have been with these students and can honestly say their help has allowed the department to focus on preparing our new computers and other high-priority projects. Ongoing work in the Upper School, some internal re-organizing within the department, and general day-to-day support have all moved forward thanks to the help our Technology Prefects and my incredible team.  

I’ve been talking with a lot of prospective employees lately. Inevitably, we always talk about what it means to be part of the Cary Academy community. This year, I have pointed to the incredible flexibility, collegiality, and resilience that our community has demonstrated in the face of these significant disruptions to the global supply chain—disruptions that have had enormous impacts on the way we teach and learn–as proof positive of how we live our mission every single day. In the face of challenge, we lean into collaboration and our core values of respect, integrity, and compassion. As I begin to see a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel, I extend thanks on behalf of myself and my team.  

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Technology & Innovation

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April 1, 2021

It is official—spring has sprung. The rain over the past week has done its job. The grass is green, and the buds on magnolia trees have bloomed. Students and faculty can be seen on the quad with their computer in hand, looking for the best spot to work and still see the image on the screen. 

It is during this time of year that the Information Services (IS) department typically starts to shift its focus to closing out the current year and prepping for a wide array of summer projects – and this summer is no exception.  

This summer’s projects include virtualizing and updating aspects of the phone system; working with a variety of vendors during the US renovation to relocate or install equipment; and, of course, launching the fifth cycle of our device programs for students and employees.  

In a typical year, thinking through the logistics of these projects and the long list of items to check is what would typically be occupying my mind. Of course, this is no typical year.  

Instead, over the past week, my thoughts have been consumed with a 220,000-ton container ship and the Suez Canal. Never would I have guessed that a vessel carrying goods from all over the world would give me pause, but there she was– the Ever Given, and her over 20,000 containers–occupying a large portion of my mind.  

I started thinking about the containers on-board. What is in them? Where are they going? Do any of them contain materials that may slow down manufacturing in the technology sector? What about all the other ships that are stuck waiting? Do their containers have something that would delay our device refresh schedule? The list of questions went on and on. 

It may come as no surprise why this ship has caught my attention. Call it leftover procurement wariness from the fall, when the unforeseen–and entirely outside of our control—impacts of COVID-19 wreaked havoc on supply chains. Effecting nearly every industry, shortages had us scrambling. Schools and businesses worldwide vied for various limited inventory, from webcams to cleaning supplies.  

As we begin to see light at the end of the COVID tunnel, we also see a supply chain that has likely been forever changed. Changes to how we live, work, and learn that may have seemed transient at the time—an increase in a mobile workforce, virtual learning, and video communication tools—are genies out of a bottle, likely here to stay. What might have been construed as a mere inconvenience before– a backorder or delay in a product—can now profoundly impact the procurement and distribution of devices worldwide.  

Which brings me back to the Ever Given and the ships that were delayed because of it.  

Truth be told, while this specific event might not directly impact us, it is a symbol of the many and compounding elements that have made this year’s planning of our summer and its projects atypical.  

As we have moved through selecting and launching our 2021-2022 tablet program, concerns about the sheer quantity of orders and caveats regarding limited availability have become an asterisk in all communications. 

Vendors have had difficulties procuring demo units for customers—including CA. Those that have offered them have done so only for a short window of time–a few days for IS and a few key stakeholders to demo the unit before requiring its return to meet high customer demand. Sadly, this has made it challenging to involve our broader community in the decision-making process as we have in past years.  

Once a device is chosen and preliminary tasks completed, the devices will be ordered. Normally when IS takes a sigh of relief and enjoys the calm before the storm–when tablet collections begin and all the new machines arrive. Not this year.  

Until the devices arrive, we will be rooting for companies like Intel and other manufacturers who make various device components. We will cross our fingers in hopes that supply chains will meet mounting demands. And, of course, we will cheer at the news that the Ever Given has finally made its way out of the Suez Canal.  

In the meantime, be on the lookout for communications regarding repair schedules for our existing devices, collection dates, and distribution of the new machines.  

And rest assured, vagaries of the market and supply chain aside, I am confident that CA will start the 2021-2022 school year with a machine that fits our needs.   

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Technology and Innovation

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Teaching with tech

April 20, 2020

Though innovation and technology are often used interchangeably when talking about education, at CA, educational technology—EdTech, for short—is one of many tools that our faculty use to create personalized learning opportunities that are flexible and relevant.

In the Middle School, Technology Facilitator Chair and math teacher Leslie Williams works hand-in-hand with Information Services to help lead the charge to bring innovative tools to our Middle School classrooms—teaching students and colleagues alike. Be it Minecraft, augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR), or computer-aided design and 3D printing, this technology lends itself to deeper learning and retention, while encouraging students to develop crucial skills that they will use throughout their lives.

We recently had an opportunity to sit down with Ms. Williams to talk about the role and impact of EdTech at CA.

How does EdTech help CA deliver on its mission?

Technology allows me to tailor the way I teach to the different ways my students learn. And it gives me some much-needed flexibility in their assessment, a different approach to see if and how they are mastering the material.

I’m always amazed to see those kids—the ones who are a little bit quiet—come out of their shells when they are designing in TinkerCad, learning in Minecraft, or exploring with augmented reality. EdTech allows them to tap into their tech interests and skills to really show off what they can do—what they are learning—in ways that play to their strengths.

It allows them to show me that they’ve attained mastery of a subject in a way that would likely be overlooked if I were to just say, ‘tell me the answer out of the book,’ ‘do a problem on the board,’ or ‘write out the essay.’ In CA-speak, it empowers them to “own their learning” in transformative ways.

What’s one of your favorite EdTech approaches?

In my classroom, I like to use gaming. It engages kids and gives them instant positive reinforcement. Each time they demonstrate mastery of a topic, they earn virtual currency that they can use to buy prizes. All of this gets them very excited about learning.

Many of us use actual video games catered to education in their classrooms—Minecraft and Prodigy are fantastic examples. With Minecraft for education, kids build entire worlds from books they are reading; it lets them visualize geometry and even study chemistry. Prodigy allows students to review and learn math in a collaborative gaming environment much like Pokemon, which is familiar to students.

What sort of skills are you promoting via EdTech in the classroom?

I think EdTech gives us more robust, immersive ways to increase student mastery and nurture crucial soft skills. As a math teacher, I can use it to hone spatial skills in a way that working geometry problems on paper or the board simply can’t.

Take, for example, our implementation of TinkerCad. In sixth grade, students learn about spatial thinking and the ins and outs of using TinkerCAD; in seventh grade, they use these skills to solve problems by creating virtual objects that they then print. That’s a real-world application of mathematical concepts—and it leads to a deeper understanding.

Leslie Williams
Leslie Williams

EdTech also allows us to incorporate design-thinking into the classroom in meaningful ways. Students design products to solve real-world challenges, print them, test them, refine them, and try again. They have to keep working toward a better solution, rather than simply completing a project and moving onto the next without really learning whether it worked or not. And that nurtures crucial skills like risk-taking, resilience, and perseverance. These lessons are echoed not only in my classroom but throughout the Middle School.

Beyond improving spatial and design-thinking skills, our students are also developing an important digital literacy: the ability to use a CAD program. And that will serve them in the Upper School and beyond. It’s a win on multiple fronts.

How are you using virtual reality (VR) in the classroom?

We’ve been using virtual reality in the Middle School for some time now, across the curriculum and disciplines, and we’re widening its use.

In the sixth grade, social studies teachers Katie Levinthal and Matthew Ripley-Moffitt use VR to help students explore the Indian subcontinent in their world history classes. That’s one of the most common uses of VR—going somewhere that’s difficult to visit. Lucy Dawson and Alicia Morris use it similarly, for the seventh grade’s world history of empires. They visit places like Machu Picchu, France, Spain, and England.

The eighth-grade science classes use VR and AR to study human anatomy; both allow students to move around inside the body, study the different parts of the heart, and even simulate surgery.

All of this allows us to take textbook information and make it come to life in a way that’s exciting, fun, and memorable for the kids.

What is something on the horizon that excites you?

I’m currently working with language arts teachers Katie Taylor and Katie Levinthal to use augmented reality (AR) to teach the sixth grade’s new book, The Wizard of Earthsea.

AR uses “triggers”—real-world objects, images, or QR codes that serve as links to virtual content when viewed through an app—to augment, rather than replace, the real world. I’m really excited. The students will build a map of the world in the story and then utilize triggers on the map to pull up additional materials that they develop. It might be pictures they create to tell parts of the story, narrative videos, or even locations and scenes that they recreate in storytelling platforms like Minecraft and Animaker.

There’s also a new tool called a MERGEcube that I’m particularly excited about. It is a six-sided QR code that allows you to interact with a virtual object in 3D space. These virtual objects could be anything from a model of the human heart to the Apollo Lunar Module. Because the cube has orientation—that is, each side of the cube has a unique QR code, so the app knows which way is up—students can move the modeled object in the real world, just as if they were holding the real thing. They can interact with the virtual model through their phone.

All of this enables our students to become hands-on with something that either doesn’t exist or that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to in the real world. It allows them to brainstorm, to think creatively, and creates opportunities for them to use storytelling to show us what they know.

EdTech Leadership Club

Thanks to a newly-formed club, students that are interested in technology will soon have an opportunity to step up as tech leaders within the Middle School. The EdTech Leadership Club (ETL) will provide additional leadership and technology training to students interested in EdTech.

Middle School students with Merge Cubes

Working at their own pace, club members will be tasked with mastering all the EdTech that CA has to offer and sharing that expertise back out to the community. As they master skills, students will earn micro-credentials that can be proudly displayed on student-designed wrist bands, necklaces, etc.. These signal to the community what tools club members can support, what skills they carry in their “virtual backpack.”

“As we so often to do at CA, with the ETL, we’re putting kids in the driver’s seat,” explains Williams. “The students will be responsible for learning all these different pieces of software and hardware­—truly playing to learn. Once credentialed, they will take those skills to the classroom, assisting with the deployment of technology and offering tech support services to their peers and teachers alike.”

By empowering students, Williams thinks the entire Middle School EdTech program will be strengthened, even expanded. “While I have a basic understanding of each software tool in their toolkit—I may not be an expert in all the finer intricacies of each of them. The kids, however, they live and breathe these new technologies. They become true experts—and they can also get their friends excited and engaged. By supporting their passions and empowering them as leaders, we increase the number of students that we can reach, the number of projects that we can support in the classroom.”

One of Williams’ priorities with the ETL is to ensure that its member composition reflects that of CA’s diverse student body. She hopes the club might spark interests in those students that might not typically consider themselves suited for STEM-related fields or those students, particularly girls, who often feel social pressure in Middle School to do things other than spend time on STEM activities.
At the end of the day, Williams’ goal with the ETL is to create savvy tech users—perhaps even tomorrow’s tech leaders—that are well-prepared to succeed in today’s technology-driven world. As she notes enthusiastically, “this sort of flexible learning gives those kids that might not otherwise have the opportunity in a more traditional setting, to step-up and thrive as leaders. It gives them meaningful opportunities to hone their leadership, technology, and communication skills to the benefit of our entire community.”

Written by Dan Smith, Digital Content Producer and Social Media Manager

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3D Printing in MS: Small steps, small designs, big learning

February 7, 2018

We like to tell stories of student successes. That’s what we’re about.

Behind the scenes, though, our faculty are continually exploring and collaborating to set the stage for those great stories. Here is one small example involving a new 3D printing initiative in the MS:

At the end of last year, the MS purchased six portable 3D printers. Once they arrived, it quickly became evident that a smaller group of core faculty would need to take ownership of learning the intricacies of 3D printing and of developing 3D CAD skills.  The Middle School Instructional Technology Team (ITT) was tasked with the initiative.

Under the leadership of 7th grade math teacher, Leslie Williams, the five-person team of cross-curricular and cross-grade level teachers meets weekly with the focus of enhancing student learning and supporting curricular goals via technology.  The team explores educational technologies, trains middle school faculty, and supports implementation in the classroom. Members of the team, Katie Levinthal, Tyler Gaviria, Andrew Chiaraviglio, Kimberly Shaw and Leslie regularly present ideas and research at middle school faculty meetings during Tech-in-Ten time.

Starting in January, the team delved into the details of CAD and 3D printing.  One afternoon I wandered into an ITT meeting and observed the messy and creative process of design exploration.  The small printers (designed for children’s hands) were a challenge to calibrate with adult hands. There were printing issues until it was discovered that the designs were not adhering to print plates, and the measurements had to be absolutely exact. In this exploratory stage, the team modeled resiliency, perseverance, and a growth mind set (concepts we teach to our students) by continuing to plug away until it was successful with printing larger scale models.

At recent faculty meetings, ITT members shared team successes and ideas for classroom use.  Several faculty members have now reached out to learn how 3D printing and CAD could be integrated into upcoming projects.  For example, 6th grade world cultures teachers are interested in having students design items for their Japanese dioramas.  In German class, students are creating a virtual German village in Prezi and will design models of the buildings to be printed. To wrap the project, the class will create a 360-degree video of its own.  Ideas and connections are developing for future projects in other classes.

Excitement about designing and printing is being fostered on the student side as well.  Last week, all middle school students were invited to participate in a 3D-design challenge to create a CA Middle School logo by the end of second trimester.  Interested students must learn design skills through Tinkercad to participate.  The response has been overwhelming positive, and we anticipate fierce competition and an outstanding product.  To keep the initiative rolling, Ms. Williams is offering a third trimester club called Tinker, Code and Create which adds 3D printing design skills to her existing Coding club.

As with all worthwhile initiatives, this one is taking time and small steps, but big faculty and student learning outcomes are anticipated!

Written by Marti Jenkins, Head of Middle School

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