A principal, some parents, a few companies and a whole lot of community interest has Hill View Elementary on the right track.
The Granite District school has created a computerized light (very light) rail system that teaches students science, math, computer, geography, civics, creative thinking, cooperative interaction and a host of other skills.The project is being spotlighted during Education Week in Utah as an example of how school-community cooperation can create an exceptional program.
From computer terminals, Hill View students can send trains whizzing along Foothill Boulevard, in a loop around the State Capitol, along State Street to 58th South and back along Seventh East, or any of scores of combinations using the system's 27 switches - all at the same time. A miscalculation means "oops" and a possible collision.
Tuesday, the Computers and Technology on Track project was dedicated, with Gov. Norm Bangerter, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, participating in a ribbon-cutting ceremony and applauding the project for its innovation and creativity. Also participating were Hill View PTA President Brent Peterson, Mike Newman, student body governor; Patricia Sandstrom, Granite Board member; and the school's chorus.
The light rail model is the brainchild of Principal Paul McCarty, who fell in love with trains "when I was 8." But he couldn't have envisioned then the set-up that occupies a full room in his school. And he has been surprised at the response he has received to calls for help - from as far away as Germany.
The Marklin Co. of Germany (with American offices, fittingly, in New Berlin, Wis.), has provided approximately $10,000 worth of digital train equipment and uses the Salt Lake project as an outstanding example of an educational program using their equipment.
The Tandy Co. of Fort Worth, Texas, has contributed computer equipment worth more than $45,000, McCarty said. The grandfather of a student who has a drapery business installed blinds in the computer room and will drape the 8-foot by 16-foot train table with a velvet skirt.
Underneath that skirt, McCarty pointed out, is a mish-mash of wires that control the table-top rail system. Much of the computer work has been directed by Stan and Margo Bergeson, area residents who both work for computer firms. Career Research Corp.'s contribution to software development has been worth about $15,000, McCarty said. Brigham Young University's Office of Youth Research has contributed an estimated $5,000 in personnel time to help set up computer-digital interfaces for the elementary school project. The school's PTA, the U.S. Office of Education and local businesses have contributed money as well. In all, more than $85,000 - the great bulk of it private funds - has been donated to the Hill View program, McCarty said.
The principal sees his light rail system from two perspectives - as a novel and child-grabbing education tool and as a means to involve the broader community in his school.
"We've had complete support from our PTA and have strengthened community ties," he said. Residents such as David Tanner and Dieter Waegner, who have no children in school but who have a great interest in the computer project, have turned a hand to make the project work, he said.
The Wasatch Front Regional Council offered the use of blueprints for a proposed light rail system for Salt Lake County and students recreated a large chunk of that plan for the classroom model. Although it isn't exactly to scale, important landmarks are readily identifiable.
Children are intrigued with the circling train units and don't even know they're learning science, math, computer and other principals as they send cars careening across their "county."
Sixth graders, for instance, have a computer program that transforms the color monitor into math grids and basic geometric problem solving. For kindergartners, the lesson may be as simple as identifying the location of Hogle Zoo before a field trip, McCarty said. (The zoo was so intrigued with the project that it is creating a miniature model of its campus for the school).
Students learned a lot about their community as they built miniature clay houses, plastic forests and styrofoam buildings to create the table top layout. A model of the U.S. Capitol, minus the Senate and House wings, became Utah's state capitol, a scale model LDS Temple becomes a downtown beacon and the round Salt Palace arena is an easily identified landmark.
"They didn't think they could make trees, but they found a way," McCarty said.
Teachers have proved very creative in thinking of ways to extract lessons from the light rail system and are eager to bring their classes to the computer room.