For the week of March 31, 1999  thru April 6, 1999  

NASA launches tech program

Middle school program goes online

Express Staff Writer

m31tech.jpg (10310 bytes)Students at Wood River Middle School head up to the Mars platform to search for signs of life on the simulated planet. (Express photo by Willy Cook)

It’s no secret to most Blaine County parents, students and educators that the Wood River Middle School technology program is exceptional.

The word is out that technology teacher Brad Thode has amassed a dazzling collection of high technology items in his gymnasium-sized "tech room" and that he is launching teens into the future with valuable technological skills.

Beginning next month, the technology program won’t be a secret to the rest of the world. The National Aeronautic Space Administration, NASA, is about to take the tech room global on an Internet World Wide Web site the space agency will run.

This week, Brad and wife Terry, who runs the equally impressive technology program at Hemingway Elementary, are meeting with NASA officials to assist with development of the site.

"Terry and I have often been accused of having a unique program but one that is not reproducible," Brad said.

To prove their accusers wrong, the couple published several books on technology education for elementary, middle and high schools. The Web site, Brad hopes, will carry their message further.

"These technology education programs have been successful in hundreds of other schools all over the world," Brad said. "You just have to know where to start."

Funding for the middle school’s educational amusement park comes to the students thanks to Brad’s diligent grant writing and to generous contributions from the community.

"Ninety-nine percent of what’s here is scrounged, donated or comes from grant money," Brad said. "The money that we do get, we spend on something new and not on fixing something old."

It was pioneering work completed by middle school tech students that caught the eye of officials from NASA’s educational division.

The Web site will feature work the students recently completed with micro-gravity, which is the minimal level of gravity that astronauts experience in space.

Students designed and built an innovative micro-gravity drop tower in the tech room.

Next to the tower sits an overturned treadmill snared in a web of bungie cords. It’s actually a micro-gravity simulator that allows students who harness themselves inside it to experience a feeling like weightlessness.

"It’s like being in space," said student Willy Walgren. "It doesn’t feel like you’re suspended by anything at all. It’s really a lot of fun"

Walgren shows up at the tech room with some of his friends on most mornings at 7:30 a.m. so they can get their hands on the technology.

"I get here early and just hang out," Walgren said, his eyes latching on to the gargantuan arm of an industrial robot clawing the air.

Walgren, bored with reporter’s questions, returned to the computer that he was programming to simulate the robot.

The tech room has become a popular place to hang out—and to learn.

"The kids are in the room at 7:30 a.m. every day, and they’re ready to roll," Brad said.

Perhaps the tech room’s most impressive innovation is Brad’s pedagogy. Through technology education, Brad said he hopes traditionally separate disciplines—like language arts, math and science—will be integrated and, thus, become more meaningful to students.

"We’re pretty excited about teaming up with math and science teachers under the theme of engineering," he said.

Even more important is that Brad and tech room team teacher Doug Walrath foster an environment in which students can take charge of their own learning.

"I like to describe the process as ‘imagineering,’" Thode said. "Students imagine on their own what they would like to engineer, they acquire the necessary skills, and then they design and build."

Whatever it is about the program—the labyrinthine room itself, the monstrous robots, the 40 computers, the pedagogy, or Brad’s infectious enthusiasm—middle school students are getting wired for the future.

And with NASA’s help, middle school students across the nation and the world can follow.


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