When it comes to projects, these kids think big

Tyler West maneuvers his Power Point presentation of a new high school gym with all the ease of a techie for Microsoft.

Of course, it's not the first time the high-schooler has shown the presentation. He and his lab partner, Trent Sullivan, worked on the project to help the school superintendent persuade the school board to fund a new gym.

Mr. Sullivan used state-of-the-art engineering and architectural software. The board rejected the plea, but Mr. West and Sullivan learned invaluable lessons that have already landed the pair job offers - not to mention attention from college admissions officers.

The source of their expertise was something called the Environmental and Spatial Technology lab. Known as EAST, it's a teaching model that provides hands-on learning and gives high school students the tools to compete in global companies. And the innovative labs are transforming students' lives.

"The EAST lab changed my life," says Sullivan, a senior. "It helps kids who don't like regular classes like English or math. You can come in here and you can be good in here. If it wasn't for here, I wouldn't have known what I wanted to do or where I would go to college."

Trent now plans on majoring in spatial information systems. And he's headed to Maui in June to help set up EAST labs on the island.

Students enrolled in EAST labs learn computer skills through projects that focus on developing systems or creating plans for schools, communities, and states.

Many of the lab students' projects are in rural areas. Their work has included writing a $118,000 grant for Brinkley, Ark., to receive computers for senior citizens, and then teach them how to use the Internet; developing floor plans in schools to provide for more space and new school rooms; and designing and building a telescope and hosting constellation parties for the community.

EAST is also at work in urban areas such as Little Rock, Ark. At Central High, students have written a $108,000 grant in order to get computers so juvenile delinquents can learn about technology in hopes of bridging the digital divide.

"These types of projects are important to students, because they give them the opportunity to change their roles," says Tim Stephenson, the founder of EAST labs. "Most of their educational experiences have been centered on passing a test. They get a false sense of what makes them valuable in their community. For the first time, students feel responsible for their own learning."

Mr. Stephenson, a former law-enforcement officer, started the first EAST lab in 1995 at Greenbrier High School in Greenbrier, Ark. The idea evolved out of one of his classes that focused on the outdoors and working hands-on with projects for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

He soon realized that he needed a different tool - one with challenging technology. But he also needed money and computers.

Though he contacted numerous business leaders about the undertaking, Stephenson received only one reply from a businessman willing to talk about supporting the project. Jim Wells, owner of Wellsco Graphic Solutions in north Arkansas, agreed to help Stephenson out. Mr. Wells, who used Intergraph Software in his business, persuaded the Alabama company to get behind the project.

Greenbrier High School's first EAST lab project was to design and implement the town's 911 system.

Students in EAST labs don't have teachers instructing them in the traditional fashion. Instead, they have "facilitators" who run the labs much as the head of a corporation would. But for the most part, students teach themselves using tutorials, books, and teleconferencing with software and hardware experts linked to the EAST lab by means of the Internet.

"Every day these students come into class, and they want to work," says Ann Rossini, the facilitator for Lake View High School in Lake Village. "They look at it as if it is a job. Students who are not even interested in school come into this class and shine."

Jennifer Matthews, a senior at Lake View, looks as if she would be more into 'N Sync lyrics than computer technology.

But this petite high school senior with her overstuffed backpack rattles off high-tech lingo with ease.

It's no surprise that the electronics wizard is a student administrator in the EAST lab here. Her job? Keeping students on track, reviving computers once they crash, and maintaining paper work on all the systems.

She's also designing an interactive computer program to help students in preschool learn grammar.

"This is the only class where you are an adult," says Ms. Matthews, who plans to major in English in college, but will incorporate designing software into her studies. "You set deadlines for yourself and work toward the finish," she says.

Matthews also says that EAST labs allow students to have "intelligent conversations with people who don't think I am a geek."

Fifty-two schools in Arkansas now have EAST labs. The program has branched out to a few schools in Alabama and Louisiana. Before year's end, EAST labs will be in schools in Hawaii, Illinois, and possibly Pennsylvania and Texas.

In early spring, EAST labs students showed off their talents in the state capitol. They hoped to prove to state legislators how valuable it would be to increase the number of labs throughout Arkansas with the passing of an amendment to an education bill which would allow funding for EAST labs in 85 more schools throughout Arkansas within the next two years.

"This is all about service learning," says Stephenson. "When students build something themselves for their community, they contribute value to that community. It forever changes their self-image and self-esteem, and they see themselves as an asset, not a burden, which is key in the New Economy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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