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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Turning on a dime: Transitioning to a virtual school environment

April 30, 2020

Turning on a dime. I have been thinking about this expression a lot lately.  

Consider a large aircraft carrier—and what it must take to maneuver a turn quickly. It is quite a feat, made all the more impressive when you consider that a ship like the USS Gerald R. Ford displaces 100,000 tons of water and takes a crew of 5,000 to pull it off.  

While not the size of an aircraft carrier, in recent weeks, Cary Academy has been maneuvering to accomplish a similar feat.   

When news of the novel coronavirus started to make waves, Information Services began thinking through what it would look like for some members of our community if they could not be on campus for a couple of weeks. There was no real concern about classes continuing because, while it would be an inconvenience, we had the tech in place to accommodate those who would not be able to return to campus. 

When it looked like school was going to potentially delay returning from break for a couple of days, the team was curious what that might look like. Again, we were confident that, even though students may not be returning, we had all the necessary tools in place to stay on course. Nothing too much to worry about; we would have to make slight changes in our heading, but, surely, it would only be a slight detour.  

We immediately started making plans for students to bring in their machines to get fixed before classes started. We ordered protective gloves and cleaning supplies to wipe down machines before working on them. Realizing the importance of being here for our CA community, we created a schedule so someone from our team would be on campus for those who needed them.  

When I left work that Friday afternoon, I knew that we had done all we could to prepare for the next two weeks to support our teachers and students. On the academic front, we were confident that, during this time, CA teachers would be comfortable moving forward from a technical and pedagogical standpoint.  

Again, inconvenienced? Yes. Dead in the water?  No.  

Then, the stay-at-home order came down. And what we hoped was going to be a two-week inconvenience suddenly loomed much larger. Our entire educational system was asked to turn on a dime. Issues regarding equity, online security, and what the rest of the school year would look like, took front and center in a more significant way.  

There was no question whether CA academics would continue through the remainder of the year. Instead, the question became: how can we change our course of direction to meet the needs of the CA  community? 

And this is when I started thinking about schools as a whole. And how incredibly lucky we are to be part of the CA community, where the creative and thoughtful integration of technology has always been directly tied to our school mission statement: discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence.  

Put simply: we are a tech-savvy school. Cloud computing, asynchronous education, and virtual meetings have long been incorporated into the CA environment through Office365, our blended classes, and business practices.  

While moving the entire community to a virtual environment had never been part of the master plan, thankfully, many of the tools and experience required to do so were already in place. And that has allowed us to make what would otherwise be a very difficult transition as smoothly as possible.  

We were able to move quickly, reconfiguring and changing how we utilize resources like Blackbaud and MS Teams. We leveraged existing policies and procedures for those who needed to have physical repairs done to the computers.  And we expanded the purpose of technologies that we had been using elsewhere—like Zoom—to bring them into the classroom.   

Of course, while our technological readiness helped to ease the initial transition, it does not mean that we would not encounter some rough seas that we will have to work through. While our laptop program enables everyone to have what they need to work virtually, it is not without challenges.  

Issues that might have been easily handled pre-COVID—how to best support those individuals that experience computer issues—become more complex with mounting and constantly-evolving security protocols that require on-campus technical support amidst social distancing concerns.  

So, what have we done? How are we helping to turn the ship? 

Our community’s online security remains a paramount concern. And we have been reviewing security policies to ensure that we are maximizing ways for us to be safe while using new technologies.  

We do not all have the same consistent internet connection or availability, so we are monitoring the few community members that may need additional support to establish a solid connection. And we’re investigating alternative options, should we find ourselves in a similar situation next school year.  

Knowing how personal and overwhelming tech issues can be, we’ve created a virtual helpdesk conference room for community members to drop in for virtual face-to-face support.  

Just like it takes 5,000 crew members to run the carrier, it takes all of us working together to provide the best for our community. I could not be prouder to be a part of the CA crew and to have the privilege of leading an incredible team who continue to do everything they can to keep our engines running smoothly.  

And while I do not know exactly what the near future is going to look like, I am confident that we have the systems in place to support our students’ learning– whatever form that may take.  

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Innovation & Technology

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Leslie Williams teaches EdTech to Middle School students

Faculty Reflections

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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Together… at a Distance

April 2, 2020

While weather conditions have provided the occasional opportunity to experiment with virtual learning days, those brief interludes of remote learning pale in comparison to the scope of our current enterprise.  It’s one thing to be closed for a few days during a snowstorm, and quite another to be shut down for weeks at a time in the midst of a global health crisis.

Cary Academy is fortunate to be entering into this unprecedented period of nationwide school closures with a distinct advantage when it comes to access to and comfort with technology.   Whether it’s working in a OneNote notebook, editing a shared document, contributing to a discussion board, using an online interface to practice a musical instrument or a second language, exploring a math concept with a digital visualization tool, generating an infographic, recording a podcast, producing a video, creating a digital slideshow, Skyping with an outside expert, or doing 10 minutes of Membean, our faculty and our students are already quite accustomed to using technology in many and varied ways to support learning and growth.

Normally, however, the robust program of technology-infused learning that is business-as-usual at Cary Academy would be embedded in a strong framework of daily in-person interactions.  How can we maintain that sense of human connection that is so critical to learning and wellbeing when everyone is suddenly working in isolation from home?    The challenge facing our school with the closure of our campus is arguably less about a shift to digital learning than a shift to distance learning.

Our first two weeks of virtual learning have been all about figuring out how best to bridge the distance that has become our new normal (at least for now) and continue to provide mission-centered learning experiences that include opportunities for social interaction and feedback.  Our general approach to virtual learning in this start-up phase has been to begin with the familiar, and then gradually phase in new procedures and tools, trying hard not to overwhelm anyone in the process.

As part of the transition to virtual learning, faculty and students have been learning to use two new platforms that support live communication in an online setting:  Microsoft Teams and Zoom Meetings.  The video conferencing, screensharing and chat features of these platforms are helping us to recreate the sense of in-person connection that is vital to student engagement.

While video conferencing is certainly an important new tool in our virtual learning toolkit, we are in no way looking to replicate our normal daily schedule as a series of video meetings.   Expecting teachers and students to stare at their screens in that way is neither healthy nor representative of the kind of active learning that students enjoy when school is in regular session.  Our virtual learning schedule is instead designed to provide time for a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning activities, with individual teachers balancing these two modes from week to week in a way that makes sense for the specific learning goals they have identified for their students.

Understandably, the main focus during our first two weeks of virtual learning has been upon getting our academic classes up and running.  The way faculty have jumped into the difficult work of relaunching their classes in the digital environment and creating a sense of connection for students, and the positive way students and parents have responded to these efforts, have been remarkable and inspiring.

The shift to online learning has, of course, required us to pare down our curriculum–focusing on our most essential learning objectives for students and adjusting our time and product expectations accordingly.  This is one of those occasions where less is more, and honing in on key concepts and skills will take us further than trying to pack everything we had planned for a regular trimester into our necessarily condensed virtual school schedule.

Happily, we have now reached a point in our virtual learning journey where we are ready to begin layering in additional opportunities for students to engage with their teachers and their peers.  We have built time into the schedule for advisory and for club meetings, and we are looking at other ways we might work with students and families to recapture a feeling of connectedness in the virtual realm.

At the same time, we are keenly aware that there is a learning curve for faculty in redesigning their classes for a virtual learning environment, and we have to give them the time they need to rethink their curricula and reshape their instructional strategies for the online setting.  We are equally mindful of the fact that we are all caught in a difficult situation right now, and there are limits to what we can reasonably ask of our employees and our families in the current climate of uncertainty and disruption.  Our virtual learning schedule reflects these considerations, as well.

Distance is a tough hurdle, made even tougher by the physical, emotional and financial stress that is all around us.  That said, if we all continue to approach our current situation with creativity, flexibility, and compassion for one another, we will have a spring trimester of virtual learning that we can all be proud of.

Written by Martina Greene, Dean of Faculty

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Putting the pieces together

February 20, 2020

I love putting things together; jigsaw puzzles and LEGO are some of my favorites. Seeing what the end should look like, following the directions, putting it together piece by piece – it always feels like a small accomplishment 

I find comfort in the process; there is a clearly labeled set path to follow and, barring any missing pieces, all should work out as expected. But others, like the Master Builder characters in the LEGO movies, see the possibilities beyond the prescribed plan, the possibilities in disruptive innovation. They use their imagination throughout, even quite purposefully breaking from an intended path. I envy those who live in the happy medium between the two 

The reality is, I grapple with this tension—the desire to create and adhere to a beautifully crafted plan and the reality of the flexibility and creativity required to successfully implement one in an imperfect world. To embrace disruptive innovation for a better result.  

As I have written in a previous post, the nature of technology alone forces me to be malleable in my daytoday work. I can envision a big picture, create a plan to achieve it, but I’m fully aware that there are going to be design revisions, change orders, and mistakes (learning opportunities?) made.  

Like the Master Builder, I have to be willing to break free of the directions, of a prescribed plan—to add elements, to shift course on the fly to fit my needs, to see a project through. (And, of course, that perseverance, flexibility, and resiliency are exactly the skills we hope to impart to our students.) 

Over the past few years, Cary Academy has been working to achieve the four main goals set forth by our current strategic plan: institutional flexibility, authentic engagement, strong connections, and appropriate resources.  

It is a large puzzle. And one that I’ve been thinking about a lot—about how best to support it and how to make it come to life in our spaces and systems.  And, like a puzzle, the whole picture is sometimes hard to envision as you are working it, but, any one piece, when newly put into place, might be the one that starts to bring it into clearer view. 

When Dr. Ehrhardt talks about making learning visible or creating institutional flexibility, I can imagine some of the things he describes – glass walls, moveable furniture, and the like. What I also imagine, though, are the more obscure pieces to the bigger puzzle. 

Some pieces are straightforward and tangible: where should a display and electrical power go if all the walls are glass? Does the network have a strong enough Wi-Fi signal for all the flexible learning spaces?  

Other puzzle pieces are not quite as easy to imagine.   

Institutional flexibility isn’t just about having different types of spaces or a new class schedule. It’s also about having the correct systems in place to support learning initiatives, to allow for as much flexibility as possible.  

Our continued integration of the Blackbaud Education Management System is just one example of a system that allows for institutional flexibility. It represents several pieces of the strategic puzzle. And, while not perfect at this stage, I see how when it is fully implemented it will connect many of our goals together.  

The renovation of the Library and Information Services department are two newly connected pieces to the puzzle that have started to bring the full picture more clearly into view.  

Creating more workspaces for students to work collaboratively or quietly. Relocating the school store Converting the second-floor classroom into another flex space. These are obvious ties back to the strategic plan. The renovation of the Information Services department was an equally thoughtful operationalization of the strategic plan, but it is perhaps a less obvious one 

In addition to renovating the offices, the entire department has been reconfigured with the strategic plan in mind.  

A flexible and visible classroom space was created to house computer science classes, host small events, and provide a space for professional development and training opportunities. A space has been created for future Computer and Network Essentials (CANE) students to provide walk-in support to other students and members of our community allowing for authentic engagement. Right-sizing the data center allowed the department to reclaim much-needed space that houses a flexible workroom for the department to host meetings with vendors, configure new equipment, and potentially be used as another learning space.  

Collectively these projects have been our Master Builder project, creating a set of flexible spaces that meet the needs of a support center, a classroom, and department offices. More importantly, it’s a new, open, visible space that allows for my department members and I to model aspects of the strategic plan with the hope of helping others see the overall plan a little clearer.  

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Technology and Innovation

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Computer Science Week at CA

December 6, 2018

It’s Computer Science Week at CA! The week is held every year in honor of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, whose birthday is December 9. Hopper is known for creating one of the first compilers that converted english into machine code, among other things.

This year, the computer science department and the Upper School WISE club (Women in Science and Engineering) are hosting a week full of fun experiences that focus on the four aspects of computational thinking: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithm design. Both decomposition (the breaking down of a problem into smaller manageable parts) and abstraction (identifying and extracting relevant information to assist in solving a problem) aid in pattern recognition and identifying trends. When used together, these skills lay the foundation for creating an algorithm design or plan of attack for solving or working through a problem.

All week, the library has been abuzz with various opportunities for the Cary Academy community to have fun and explore these concepts. Activities range from brain teasing origami to virtual and augmented reality experiences.

Virtual reality returned this year with different experiences for each day of the week. Users have shot a bow and arrow, helped R2-D2 fix the Millennium Falcon, avoided spaceship fire, or sliced fruit with a Samurai sword. A fan favorite will be chosen for Friday’s experience.

This year also saw the addition of more items and games, including a Microsoft HoloLens Scavenger Hunt in the library. Librarian Brian Pugsley placed holograms all around the first floor of the library for scavengers to discover. Participants who find the most by the end of the week will win a Merge AR Cube, an augmented reality toy that allows you to hold holograms in your hand.

Another new activity this year is a traditional 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle featuring Georges Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884–1886). Famous for his innovative methods and techniques, Seurat used logical abstraction and mathematical precision to construct his paintings. He, along with artist Paul Signac, is credited for inventing a painting technique called pointillism, which relies on the viewer’s eye and brain to blur and blend many small dots together into a fuller range of tones that create an image. Pointillism led the way for image rendering and is the foundation for how computer screens work.

WISE strives to promote and support women in science and engineering while creating a collaborative and social academic environment for all. To that end, the week will culminate with a WISE-sponsored event for all Middle School students this Saturday in the Discovery Studio. Students will have the opportunity to participate in a variety of STEM-related activities outside of the classroom, including working with liquid nitrogen alongside an NC State engineering professor, learning statistics from jellyfish, computational thinking games, and virtual reality.

Computer science and the principles of computational thinking are in everything that we do. During Computer Science Week, we strive to provide all types of activities showcasing this fact, many of which do not involve a computer at all. This year, one of the biggest hits with the community has been a hanging balancing puzzle game called Suspend. Another fan favorite, back from last year, is Mindbender Origami.

Personally, Computer Science Week is my department’s favorite week of the year. We’re sad to see it come to an end, but have already started thinking about what next year will bring.

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Innovation & Technology

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Picking out the CA laptop

March 15, 2018

Each year, the Information Services (IS) department research and try various products to see how they would fit into the culture and curriculum. One of the perks of being part of the department is that you get to play with all the new gadgets and help decide if it fits into our vision for Cary Academy. This year 3D printers, virtual reality, and a drone where just a few to make it through. Most times this is a fairly easy process: we hear or read about a something, we play with it and show it to students and faculty, then we integrate it into our environment, and sometimes we receive accolades for bringing it to CA.

Bigger projects follow a different process, take more time, and are not as clear cut as we would like them to be. Once of the biggest takes place every 3-4 years when it is time to replace our faculty and student laptops. For some, buying a new device can be fun and exciting like buying a new house or car. You do your research, determine what you are looking for, budget what you are willing to spend, and then you follow your gut. A possible bonus being that for most part you only need to consult with a couple of family members before deciding.

The process for when looking for a new device at Cary Academy is not too different except your “family” is closer to 800 members – all with different opinions and needs. It is not an easy task with no correct answer at the end. The first thing Information Services does is determine what it is that the CA community “wants” versus what it is that they “need”. The “need” is straight-forward based on our curriculum and how we as a school use the devices both in and out of the classroom. As with most purchases, it is what we “want” that tends to get us in trouble because they tend to be contrasting in nature. For example, we want something thin and not bulky looking, but we also want an internal holder for a stylus. We want something that is cool and cutting edge, but we also want something that is known as a work-horse with no issues. Determining the “needs” and “wants” only gets us so far.

It’s the device specifications that get us to the next round. The first specification that is looked at and is a deal breaker is whether it has a touchscreen that you can write-on. Inking is that one specification that not only knocks out a large portion of the devices but also immediately puts us in a certain pricing range. The device must have the capability to join our network easily and allow our firewall and monitoring systems to work. These reasons tend to be why we do not look at Apple or Chromebook devices.

After looking at the needs and specifications, we review financials and support.

The process up to this point is relatively clean and could follow a rubric. Depending on how various machines stack up, a decision could be made. The reality is that, for better or worse, these devices are more than just machines to carry out daily tasks. At the end of the day, picking out a device comes down to a subjective and emotional experience.

This is the biggest struggle when deciding on something for a roughly 800 individuals rather than a couple of family members. This is where IS can go from hero to zero in a matter of seconds. Interpreting the community’s voice, managing expectations, and perceptions is the last step in our process.

To gather the community voice, we try to provide demo units for people to try-out. Manufacturer’s provide the units, and we lay them out in the library for all to see. This year we had five different manufacturers who met our criteria in some way: Fujitsu, HP, Lenovo, Microsoft, and Toshiba. Each machine had its own pros and cons but “under the hood” each would fulfill our needs.

Students had the opportunity to “play” with the machines and put their choice in a fishbowl for IS to review. This year, of the students that voted, the Microsoft Surface was the big winner. Even though it has a detachable keyboard and optional stylus. Unfortunately, we found out afterwards that the keyboard and stylus were added costs resulting in the Surface being out of our price range. Additionally, the Fujitsu models received the lowest votes and are on the higher end of our budget. This leaves us with HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba – all of which received a similar range of student votes.

All three options are great. All three will fit our needs. All three will have their own challenges. And not one of the three will make everyone happy.

Once we’ve parsed all that data, with all other things being equal, we make our selection on the best value for the school (and, as such, for our tuition-paying families).

As such, we have selected the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga X380 as the new student computer.

We will be hard at work this summer preparing these new machines and thrilled to hand them out to students in the fall!

Written by Karen McKenzie, Director of Innovation & Technology

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