SOUTH PORTLAND — In some ways, not much has changed in the sixth-grade curriculum over the years.
Students at Mahoney Middle School are still learning long division and basic algebra in math class. In social studies, they’re learning the provinces of Canada and their capitals. In science, they’re learning parts of the cell.
But this year, the tools are different. The flash cards in math, maps for social studies and cellular diagrams in science class are all being built, examined and manipulated on the 8-by-6-inch screens of their new Apple iPads.
“I still have pull-down maps in my classroom,” Mike Nee, a sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher, said Wednesday. “But now I’ve also got Google Earth. And so do all the kids.”
The School Department is testing the iPads with about 50 sixth-graders at Mahoney. The rest of the sixth-graders there and at Memorial Middle School received Apple MacBook laptop computers. This is the first year that personal computing devices have been distributed to sixth-graders in the city.
“It’s really cool,” sixth-grader Noah Malone said during Julie Pitt’s math class on Wednesday.
Malone was programming multiplication equations into his iPad, which would then reverse the operation to ask him to solve a division problem. When all the questions were answered, Noah would get a score.
He also showed off his favorite iPad App, “Science 360.” The program, created by the National Science Foundation, offers seemingly endless interactive information on different science topics. Noah watched one video about the science of football.
The pilot program is designed to give South Portland a first-hand look at the technology of the future, said Andrew Wallace, technology director for the city schools.
Wallace said he suspects that the Maine Learning Technology Initiative – the state program that’s been providing funding for laptop computers in schools since 2000 – may see tablet computers like the iPad as an alternative to laptops. When that happens, he said, South Portland should know whether to make the change.
“We want to be in an educated position to make a decision,” Wallace said. “If they say the next device is going to be an iPad, we’ll know with a year’s experience whether it’s viable or not.”
So far, the iPads seem to be a hit with students and teachers.
Nee said he was skeptical at first about the prospect of finding ways to use the iPad in school. He said he was initially frustrated when he first received his iPad over the summer.
“You want it to be a laptop (computer), but it’s not,” he said.
Since then, however, he has changed his mind. Now he believes the iPad is a “game-changer” for education.
“This lets us take the adventurous nature of 11-year-olds, put the information we want in front of them and say ‘go for it,'” he said. “They find information faster, just based on the ambition they have to use the technology.”
The iPads for students and teachers cost the district nearly $26,000 – part of more than $120,000 set aside through energy cost savings to fund the expansion of the state technology initiative to the sixth grade.
Wallace said he figures the school will save a bundle by switching to iPads entirely, because they cost about half as much as laptop computers: $480 each, compared to the more than $900 for each laptop computer obtained through the state program.
Pitt, the sixth-grade math and science teacher, said her students were immediately comfortable with the iPads, and that they’ve already become more engaged and curious.
“They’re 21st century kids and now they have 21st century tools,” she said. “By giving them a tool in their century, they’ve become more engaged. And that’s what we want.”
Wallace said there will still be tweaks, trials and changes in how the iPads are implemented.
Soon, the school will give the students short free-rein periods, during which they can search for new apps they think have educational value and pitch their suggestions to teachers. If the teachers approve, the apps could end up on all the sixth-graders iPads and integrated into curriculum.
“This is a nascent technology,” Wallace said. “The experts here are only about a year ahead of these kids.”
The question of retention – whether the students really absorb knowledge learned through a sometimes fleeting medium – also has to be answered.
But Steve Koelker, the technology integrator for the school district, said expectations for learning may have to change with the times. Memorization and rote learning was more important when knowledge wasn’t readily accessible around the clock, he said.
“Today,” Koelker said, “knowing access paths to information is as important as knowing the information itself.”
Noah Malone, a sixth-grader at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland, uses his Apple iPad during math class Wednesday, Oct. 26. Students were programming and using division flash cards on the tablet computers, which were first introduced to classrooms a week ago.