Feb 122007
Authors: Brandon Owens

Several CSU students have been given the opportunity to experiment with a new curriculum that puts interactive technology at theirs and the instructors’ fingertips.

Two-dozen students from the Key Academic Community, a program designed to increase academic success, diversity and retention at CSU, have been given an opportunity to experiment with Tablet PCs as part of their class requirements.

“The Internet and the computers are totally changing the way we do science,” said professor Stephen Thompson, who uses the technology in his first-year chemistry course. “This (tablet PC) is an infinite notebook and it’s the ultimate tool.”

The Tablet PC is a laptop computer that features a pivoting screen that allows users to write or draw directly on the screen with a computer-compatible pen.

The computer technology is part of a new chemistry curriculum called the Laptop System.

The purpose is to shift chemistry classes away from typical lecture style and move toward a more technologically advanced and interactive classroom atmosphere.

Since its inception last fall, Thompson and the students have worked out some of the kinks on the new computers.

“They had Beta versions of programs first semester which messed up a lot of people’s computers,” said Nick Davis, a freshman open-option major. “There were little glitches, but for this semester, they all have new programs. So far, no one has complained about glitches or anything.”

The computers came from a Hewlett-Packard Corp. equipment award to Thompson through the HP “Technology for Teaching” program. The students in the program, who live in the same campus residence hall and take mostly the same classes, are allowed to take the computers anywhere.

Despite some difficulty getting used to the Tablet PC’s, Davis says the advantages outweigh the setbacks.

“In here, you have the Internet, you have your notebook, you have a calculator and everything you know,” he said. “Everything is so speedy. You have information at the tip of your fingers 24/7.”

Although Davis has taken his Tablet PC to all types of classes, he said it is particularly useful in Thompson’s class.

“In chemistry with Dr. Thompson, he likes to draw on the board a lot, so we can follow him with (the tablet PC),” he said.

Thompson, who has been a professor at CSU since 1969, has been the director of the Center of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education for the last two years.

He said CSMATE was first developed in 1992 for the purpose of helping faculty in the departments of the college do a better job teaching science technology and mathematics.

“In the molecular sciences nowadays, the way that that science is done is changing,” he said. “It used to be beakers and Bunsen burners, large amounts of dangerous chemicals and things like that. We are now doing it with digital methods, using different techniques, using much smaller amounts of substances so that we don’t throw it away into the environment afterwards.”

He explained that the reason they chose tablets is because chemistry and biology in the molecular sciences are graphic languages.

“They’re very much like writing and drawing and not like typing,” Thompson said. “It’s still virtually impossible to type a chemical formula.”

Thompson said that the university has been pioneering different programs to integrate chemistry into the Tablet PC for the last four years.

“What we’re trying to do is develop an entirely new kind of curriculum for chemistry,” he said. “We are trying to figure out what works in this context.”

Thompson was awarded $415,000 in a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund to Improve Postsecondary Education Program in November.

With this funding, Thompson is working with four or five community colleges around the area, including Fort Morgan Community College.

Thompson said science is changing fundamentally because of the role of technology.

Anna Le, another open-option freshman, said that the Tablet PC just makes life simpler.

“You can take notes with it instead of wasting paper and pencils,” she said. “Our book is loaded on our computer, so you don’t have to buy it. It just takes some time to get used to writing notes on it instead of regular paper.”

One of the biggest surprises for Thompson was how dependent students were on their keyboards.

“I never realized how much the students are mortgaged to their keyboards,” he said. “Students are told in school that the way to access a computer is through a keyboard, but you don’t need them now.”

Although there are many advantages to the new computers, they have created new challenges for Thompson.

“The benefits are that I’m suddenly getting laboratory reports that are very sophisticated,” he said. “It’s a big challenge for me because I’m an old professor and I have to re-learn how to evaluate them and give a grade on things that are now changing rapidly.”

Staff writer Brandon Owens can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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