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Schools: All tech isn’t high tech at district fair

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A team using old technology walked away with a prize for innovation at the Georgetown County School District’s tech fair. The project by the Waccamaw Association of Aviation and Space literally soared above the rest, underscoring what district officials say is the point of its investment in technology: critical thinking.

The Waccamaw High students attached a digital video camera to a rubber weather balloon and connected both to a reel of fishing line. They came up with a minute and 30 seconds of shaky video of the football field. “We’re working on stabilizing it,” said Tyler Zeh, one of five students who worked on the project.

Once that’s done, the team envisions a range of uses. The system could extend the view of lifeguards at the beach. Law enforcement could use it for search and rescue or surveillance. Businesses could use it to get aerial photos of their products.

“The innovative thing about it is it’s a cheap way to launch a camera in the air,” said Alan Pritchard, the school media specialist and team advisor.

The school district is expected to get $400,000 from the state this year for technology. The district is near the end of a five-year plan that provided laptops for all district teachers and all students in grades six through 12 and included upgrades to the district-wide computer network.

Many of the district’s 5,000 laptops were spread out at tables in the Waccamaw Intermediate School cafeteria for last week’s fair, which allows schools to showcase ways they use technology. At the basic level, it involves using computers to research and create projects.

Jayden Bailey, a second-grader at McDonald Elementary in Georgetown, showed how she starts the process by logging in, an essential skill now that the state’s standardized tests are due to be administered online. She created a report about alligators using software called Little Bird Tales.

“The hard thing is you don’t have a lot of time to do it,” Jayden said.

Her classmate Ethan Blocher created a report on ducks and included illustrations he drew in the program along with images he downloaded. Across the room, his mother Angela, a teacher at McDonald, was judging an entry from Coastal Montessori Charter School. It was a report on “Fundamental Needs of Ancient China and Japan” created in a cloud-based presentation program called Prezi. Blocher wondered how the technology contributed to the experience.

The software allowed the students to collaborate, said Max Poole, a sixth-grader. Without that, he would have probably only focused on the areas he was interested in. “Everybody’s done an essay or book report,” he said. “Not everybody does Prezi.”

Jules Steffen, a sixth-grader who also worked on the project, said she prefers the analog to the digital. “I’m pretty horrible on computers, but it was easy,” she said. “In Montessori, we’re not really computer based.”

Brian Tucker, Georgetown County’s economic development director and judge for the fair, was surprised to learn that the charter school students used an encyclopaedia for their research. “Did you use an actual encyclopaedia? I haven’t seen one of those in a while,” he said.

School Board Member Richard Kerr said he was impressed by the creativity that the technology inspired. “It’s absolutely got to be worth it,” he said. While many of the projects could have been done without the use of computers, they provided instant and wide-ranging access to information, he said. “Without technology, some kids would have to work a year on this,” he said.

The WASA team spent about three months on its project, said Connor Graham, one of the team members. The system took its maiden flight the afternoon before the fair.

The initial idea was to fit one of the WASA rockets with a device for measuring air quality and launch it over the school, Graham said. They soon found that weight and stability would be problems.

Eventually the team decided to try a weather balloon. Zeh found four online and on sale for $52. But the issue of weight remained. Instead of air quality, they shifted focus to imagery. Maston Clark, a team member, supplied the Action Shot camera. He also contributed the fishing reel that connects the balloon and the camera to the ground.

The project acquired a name, Constellation. That’s because the team envisions future versions, said Tatum Tarte, one of the members. “This one is Gemini,” she said.

“We’re planning on improving it,” Zeh said.

Tarte thought the team had come up with a winning entry when she noticed judges from other categories stopping by to have a look at the system, suspended from the balloon over a cafeteria table. Ian Kelley took the video, slowed it down and added music. It was shown on a laptop and as the credits rolled it played “Fly Me to the Moon.”

Other local winners in the tech fair were:

Communication and collaboration, K-2: Waccamaw Elementary, Karen Pyatt, teacher; Adrian Grate and Andre Grate, students;

Creativity, K-2: Honorable mention, Waccamaw Elementary, Amy Kitowicz, teacher; Mary Darby Moore and Ruby Rosenberg, students;

Educator, K-2: Honorable mention, Waccamaw Elementary, Madison Pensyl;

Creativity, 3-5: Honorable mention, Coastal Montessori Charter, Amber Bacon’s class;

Critical thinking, 3-5: Honorable mention, Waccamaw Intermediate, Becky Anderson, teacher; Emma Kinmartin and Maggie McLeod, students;

Innovation, 3-5: Honorable mention, Waccamaw Intermediate, Charlene Allen and Becky Anderson, teachers; Jack Kibler and Anna Bird, students;

Communication and collaboration, 6-8: Honorable mention, Coastal Montessori Charter, Sarah Wilson’s team;

Creativity, 6-8: Honorable mention, Waccamaw Middle, Richard Gehrman, teacher; Stephen Russell, Morris Lumpkin, students;

Educator, 9-12: Honorable mention, Waccamaw High, Jacqueline Kemp.

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