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The Chalkboard's Energetic New Cousin
Interactive Screens Reshaping Lessons

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 5, 2005

Twenty-three sixth-graders at Sterling Middle School got a combined lesson in current events, physical science and new technology last week when a cartoon boy named Tim and a robot called Moby answered the question, "Where do hurricanes come from?"

Afterward, students eagerly waved their hands in the air, hoping to get called on so they could go up to an electronic board on the classroom wall and press a finger on the answer to quiz questions such as: What is the region in the middle of a hurricane called? A) the eye, B) the mouth or C) the navel.

"It's really cool. Instead of using the mouse, you can just touch the screen," Andrew Lai, 11, said after he tapped the correct response -- the eye -- prompting a loud checking sound from the board.

The board, known as an interactive whiteboard, is a new tool that teachers at Sterling Middle will be using this year. With its touch-sensitive screen hooked up to a projector and a desktop computer with Internet access, the 4-foot-wide screen is beginning to take the place of the chalkboard, paper handouts and even textbooks. Its online lessons move, talk and invite students to use their hands as well as their minds.

This year, students in more than 150,000 schools around the world -- including many in the Washington area -- are returning to classrooms with interactive whiteboards.

Warrenton's J.G. Brumfield Elementary School is the first Fauquier County campus to invest in one of the boards for each grade level, and in Montgomery County, the boards are being tried out in a few schools.

The boards are widely used in Fairfax County, said Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent and chief information officer. The county's newest high school, South County Secondary School, will open Tuesday with an interactive whiteboard in every classroom.

Luftglass said teachers have found the boards especially useful in special education programs and with students who have limited English proficiency. The more engaging and multimedia teaching approach can appeal to different learning styles and help students understand the concepts behind lessons, even if they can't understand every word.

But she said that funding can be scarce and that PTA funds or outside grants often are used to buy the boards, which cost about $1,000 to $2,000. With the computer and projector, the price tag can rise to about $4,000 per board.

"These kids have grown up with technology. All they want to do is play on their PlayStations and GameBoys," said Travis Ivory, 29, the Sterling Middle science teacher who used a whiteboard to give a lesson on hurricanes. In the classroom, he said, "Anytime you pop in technology like that, they swallow it up."

Ivory said he first used a whiteboard in North Carolina a few years ago and was impressed with how it held his students' attention. He also liked that the board could transform his handwritten notes into typed text and that he could save and reproduce the notes for a student who missed class by hitting "Print."

He and an English as a second language teacher at Sterling Middle teamed up last year to apply for a grant to buy one of the boards.

Ultimately, a local company donated Sterling Middle's first board, and this year the Loudoun County system's math supervisor, Cheryl Wimer, purchased nine for the school's math department.

"We wanted to get our test scores up," said Katrina S. Smith, a technology resource teacher at the school, which posted some of the county's lowest Standards of Learning test scores in the 2004-05 academic year.

Preston Coppels, director of instructional services for the Loudoun system, said he is trying to make sure that every school in the county has one or two whiteboards.

Cost is the primary barrier to acquiring the boards, said Nancy Knowlton, president and co-chief executive of Smart Technologies, the Calgary, Alberta-based inventor and vendor of the SMARTboard, a brand name for one of the interactive whiteboards. She said some schools have held bake sales or walkathons to purchase the equipment.

The market has grown faster in England, where the government has set aside 50 million pounds -- nearly $92 million -- to help schools buy interactive whiteboards as part of a larger effort to ramp up technology in classrooms, Knowlton said.

Schools make up about 60 percent of Smart Technologies' customers, but with faster Internet connections and the development of such tools as Web animation, the interactive boards have more and more applications. Many companies use them for video conferencing, and National Basketball Association teams have bought them so coaches can replay video of games and use electronic markers to draw plays, Knowlton said.

Back in the science classroom, Ivory flashed through a slideshow of images that he had found online documenting the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina: school buses floating in water, the Superdome missing swaths of the rubber sheeting that once covered its roof, a broken bridge.

While viewing an aerial photograph of New Orleans, Ivory asked Lauren Hemphill, 11, to outline the streets -- which now look like canals -- with an electronic marker.

"It's not just like reading out of book," Lauren said later about the day's lesson. "You actually get to see what you're learning about."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company