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Education: Tech Fair 5.0

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The hard part wasn’t connecting the 10 computers to create a “render farm.”

“The hard part was convincing them to let it through the door,” said Bennett Meares, a junior at Waccamaw High. “They said it was too big.”

Stacked in two rows on a cart made from 2-by-4’s painted black, it sat comfortably in the corner of the Waccamaw Intermediate School cafeteria. Next to it was the camera boom that Meares made for the WHS film club. The industrial-strength tripod from a surveyor’s transit formed the base for a metal pole, counterweight and camera platform controlled by pulleys. It was a blending of high tech and low tech at the Georgetown County School District’s fifth annual tech fair.

The computer array, assembled from cast offs from his dad’s dental practice, provides the computing power to let student animators render complex graphics. “I don’t do the animation. I’m just the tech person,” Meares said.

He had a third project at the fair, which he bundled with the other two under the heading of “capitalism.” It was a computer program he created that allows his father’s practice to send out appointment reminders to patients via text messages. It’s cheaper than the 49-cent stamps the post office requires and the hundreds of dollars a month that commercial vendors charge.

He was concerned about being able to demonstrate the software to the judges. “The network here is a bit buggy,” Meares said.

Students from WASA, the school’s aerospace club, were also challenged by the wireless network at the Waccamaw Intermediate, which is the host school precisely because of its infrastructure. Seniors Connor Graham and Nick Streiffert wanted to demonstrate their four-rotor helicopter.

WASA won the high school innovation award last year with a camera system attached to a weather balloon, prompting Superintendent Randy Dozier to offer to buy the club a drone.

“We flew it over the ponds and parking lot lights and the roof,” Graham said. “Places where it wouldn’t be safe to take pictures.”

Sarah Weathers and Claire Patterson also waited to get an Internet connection on their Dell laptop to demonstrate projects from Missy Keller’s third-grade class at Waccamaw Elementary School to the judges.

It used Google Slides presentation software for book reports. “It keeps them engaged and they work as a team,” Keller said, pointing out the software is cloud-based.

With exhibits limited to 24 inches of display space on the cafeteria tables, students found a variety of ways to dress up their workspace. Some wore business attire. The reporters for WIS News sported fedoras. There were baseball mitts, Lego robots, dolls in space suits and a rubber brain.

When they weren’t demonstrating their projects, students huddled over their smartphones. The district’s policy of out-of-sight, out-of-mind has gone by the wayside, Dozier said.

But all that computing power put a strain on the network, particularly since the number of entries jumped this year to 223 from 141 last year. Keith Brown, one of the district’s four technology coaches, issued a plea to smartphone users to disconnect from the school network.

“That’s a thing people don’t understand,” Dozier said. The technology isn’t about providing laptops or tablets. It’s about infrastructure. That’s especially true now that the state is requiring that standardized tests be given online, he said.

Nate Royal from Coastal Montessori Charter School demonstrated his class project to School Board Member Sarah Elliott. Called “The Power of Kindness,” it was an anti-bullying film made using Lego and stop-motion animation. While her grandson is a whiz at Legos, Elliott said she didn’t fully understand the process that Royal was explaining. “These kids are so tech-savvy,” she said. “They’re not afraid of computers.”

Quilt project takes the measure of career opportunities

Karen Fedor’s students started with the old technology: a needle and thread. They worked their way up through a software program to design a quilt, a computerized sewing machine to put it together and a computerized embroidery machine to provide the finishing touches.

In the Waccamaw Intermediate School cafeteria where students sat elbow-to-elbow behind laptop computers, the baby quilts Fedor’s students had on display stood apart as a product of technology that exists outside the world of zeroes and ones. And they stood out because she doesn’t teach career education. She’s a special education teacher, the head of the department at Carvers Bay High School.

Fedor, a Heritage Plantation resident, will retire next week after 41 years in the classroom, the last eight in the Georgetown County schools. The quilt project she brought to the district’s technology fair last week started out as part of a lesson in measurement. “To do this, you have to know how to measure,” Fedor said.

Quilting is her hobby, but it was new to her students, some of whom told her initially “I’m not doing that.”

She taught them to sew and was impressed that they had an eye for the square corners that are a feature of well-made quilts. The software she uses to design quilts wouldn’t run on the district’s computers, so she got an older version of the program. Although the sewing machine she brought from home is computerized, it still needs a human operator to feed the fabric.

“Guys, it’s like driving,” she told the class, using an analogy she thought would resonate with teens trying to get their licenses. “The end of the material is like your bumper. Don’t run into it.”

“It clicked,” Fedor said.

The lessons went far beyond measuring. Along with the computer skills, the class learned soft skills like team work and problem solving. “It taught these kids that a hobby can be so much more,” Fedor said. And it was ideal for a special-education class. “They’re hands-on,” she said.

The project won first place in the “critical thinking” category for high schools at the tech fair.

Although this was a one-time project, Fedor thinks it could have potential outside her classroom. “Embroidery is a huge marketable skill,” she said. “People don’t realize how big this is.”

It would take about $20,000 to equip the classroom, but she said it would pay for itself. “You could do all of the sports uniforms,” she said.

For a complete list of winners, go to gcsdtechfair.weebly.com.

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