Friday, August 22, 2003

Mid-Pacific Institute students got their first chance to study in the school's new Mike and Sandy Hartley Math/Science/Technology Complex yesterday. Travis Niederhauser and David Hashisaka put together a pneumatics system.

Mid-Pac kids
go outside box
in new center

Ninth-graders Travis Niederhauser and David Hashisaka stood in their stocking feet in Mid-Pacific Institute's airy new technology center yesterday, flipping switches and trying to create a continuous electric circuit using air pressure.

"We've never done anything like this before," Niederhauser said, adjusting his protective goggles. "It's confusing but we'll figure it out."

"Hopefully," cut in Hashisaka with a grin.

Nearby, a pair of 11th-graders struggled to build a bridge as cheaply as possible that could withstand a truckload. Their only tool: a high-powered computer.

The students were getting the first crack at the school's $12.5 million Mike and Sandy Hartley Math/Science/Technology Complex, which will have its formal grand opening and blessing tomorrow.

Designed by Creative Learning Systems, of San Diego, it is only the sixth such integrated tech center at a U.S. high school, according to Mid-Pac President Joe Rice.

Anchoring the three-building complex is the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Technology Plaza, at the base of a three-story atrium. The spacious, carpeted plaza is ringed with "zones" for engineering, robotics, biotechnology and computational science, along with a digital audio-video studio and a videoconferencing center that can hook students up with their counterparts worldwide.

The plaza is unusual for its range of technology as well as the style of learning it fosters, Rice said.

"It's not a teacher lecturing to students, it's kids going through a discovery process," he said.

Students work at oval desks that are clustered in cloverleafs across the carpeted floor, designing projects together. Their teachers, known as facilitators, introduce them to the equipment and give guidance -- but not the answers. Teachers ask as many questions as students.

Each project unfolds in a free-form way determined by the students themselves. The kids in yesterday's "Technology in the 21st Century" class, a requirement for Mid-Pac graduates, seemed to relish the new approach.

"It's definitely my favorite class because you really get into projects," Hashisaka said. "In our other classes, it's memorization and all that. This is so hands on."

Freshman Corbin Matsumoto, who was fiddling with what looked like miniature Legos trying to build a construction crane and pulley, dismissed the idea that it resembled child's play. "This is hard work," he declared.

Students document their work in daily journals and do research papers. Rather than taking a test, they create portfolios of their work and demonstrate their knowledge in a practical way.

Tom Donahoe, Technology Plaza facilitator, said the process is not as straightforward as filling a student's mind with a lecture and does not necessarily ensure that everyone covers the same terrain. But he thinks it pays off.

"This is slower, this is messier and there isn't a guarantee that everyone's going to be at the same place," he acknowledged. "But when you have a teacher lecture, kids tend to forget it later.

"If you want them to retain knowledge, this is a better way," he said. "The two kids who are building bridges are learning more about the fundamentals of physics than they realize, and they'll hold it longer."

The complex is named after major donors Michael J. Hartley, the founder of Cheap Tickets Inc., and his wife, Sandra. The couple's twin daughters graduated from Mid-Pac this year. Along with the Weinberg plaza, the complex has 14 new math and science classrooms.

A multimedia center offers digital photography, graphic design and the chance to create CDs, DVDs and compose synthesized music.

"My biggest problem," said media program director Ed Tompkins, "is getting the kids to go home at night."


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