ALLENTOWN, PA. — If Winnifred Bolinsky's fifth-grade class is the schoolroom of the future, there may be something to that chaos theory after all.
Round tables, haphazardly placed, have supplanted yesteryear's neat rows of desks here at Fogelsville Elementary School in suburban Allentown, Pa. A tube of foam rubber, freshly painted, droops over a table edge. Two boys off to the side are having fun rolling marbles down a scale-model roller coaster. And a group is gathered around a computer, that increasingly ubiquitous classroom tool.
The class is a window on the 21st century, where kids are doing exactly what educators say they should be doing: learning on their own, using technology not as an end, but as a tool.
In one sense, the computer's conquest of the classroom is almost complete. When the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association surveyed elementary and high-school students recently, it found 82 percent saying they used a computer at school; 60 percent had access to the Internet.
For many educators, it's a crucial part of learning. "Today's fifth-graders are going to take jobs of which 60 percent have not yet been defined," says Paul Hampel, technical coordinator for George Washington High School in Philadelphia.
But how most children use technology is another story.
Ms. Bolinsky's class is hard at work on its year-long project of building a scale-model amusement park. What stands out here is that, although Bolinsky won a competition sponsored by Microsoft Corp. two years ago for creative computer use, the machines fade into the background as the students use them to create presentations and conduct research.
For example, Aparna Swaminathan shows off the class's working carousel whose animals are almost all endangered species. To figure out which animals would work, the class had to look them up in computer-based encyclopedias. At the back of the class, Kara Zimmerman and Kristen Barbieri are busy typing in the information they've found about those animals into a concept map - a computerized representation of facts.
At another computer, three students are creating a multimedia presentation of the animals, combining music with text, pictures, and sounds that they've found in computerized reference works or scanned in themselves. Although the software was installed earlier in the week, Crystal McDonald, Randy Redman, and Megan Hurley are already using special effects - in this case, a "diamond dissolve" - to move from one animal to the next.
The roller coaster shows inertia, acceleration, and the difference between potential energy (which an object has at the top of the ride) and kinetic energy (which it has while moving down). To name it, the class turned to a computerized encyclopedia to find the fastest land animal: the cheetah.
In another corner, four students are writing the script for the play the class will present in May. It involves a fictional character, Julie Barton, who doesn't like physics at first, but is taken through an amusement park where the principles are demonstrated first hand. For a visitor, the students clamor to act out various scenes, which include familiar songs with new lyrics such as "Help me, Rhonda, get physics into her head."
"It's very important that the students feel that it's theirs," Bolinsky says of her projects. In previous years, classes have built a computer from scratch and studied the history and future of railroads. It is a far cry from when she started teaching five years ago, when she brought her first computer into the classroom.
Education experts are quick to point out that great teachers don't need computers. "You don't need a computer to be a good teacher. but you do need a computer to give kids as many opportunities as possible," says Jacqueline Hass, professor of education at Alverno College in Milwaukee.
Perhaps the biggest factor in whether teachers grab onto the technology is not technical expertise, but attitude, she adds. "We're seeing it in teachers who feel comfortable, not necessarily with technology, but who feel comfortable with moving away from being the sage on the stage."
Bolinsky doesn't take the stage very often. She reads out loud every day to the students. They have textbooks for math, social studies, and spelling. But students "probably spend more time on the computer and other printed materials than they do in any textbook," she says. And they answer each other's questions.
The new style seems to engage children, but does it educate them better than the old style? "That's the piece we don't know yet," says Caryl Hess, professor of education at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. But at least some parents are sold.
"I like traditional things," says Valerie Land, a member of the local school board and mother of two children taught by Bolinsky. "But I see my kids got a good traditional side of education [and] expanded another part of their mind to think creatively and problem-solve."