SALT LAKE CITY — The interior angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees.
That's true for triangles of any shape and size, a mathematical concept that in years past might have been demonstrated by the repetition of having students plot out a series of three-sided forms on graph paper.
But Tuesday, members of the Education Task Force were introduced to software currently in use in Utah schools that allows a student to manipulate digital shapes, effectively creating 1,000 triangles in one.
"This allows those students to actually create the graphs, move them around, make the connection, do some exploration, and the student gets to verify (concepts) for themselves," said Ron Twitchell, Provo School District's director of instruction and mathematics.
Twitchell's geometry class was one of four presentations given to lawmakers by Utah educators, who showed how 21st-century learning technology can be used to enhance instruction in subjects as diverse as math, science, geography and English.
Investing in school technology has been a regular discussion point for the task force since the most recent legislative session, when a so-called "1-to-1" device initiative stalled amid discussions of the cost of filling Utah schools with learning devices.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, co-chairwoman of the task force, said Tuesday's presentations were intended to give lawmakers a clearer picture of what a 1-to-1 device ratio would look like in Utah schools.
"Teachers around the country are doing great stuff, but we chose to bring in Utah teachers," Lockhart said. "These are Utah teachers doing things in Utah classrooms."
West Point Junior High geography teacher Jared Fawson said often educators are not able to be as innovative as they'd like due to a lack of technology.
Fawson began his presentation by showing images of a Wright brothers glider contrasted with a modern passenger jet, and a turn-of-the-century operating room with a state-of-the-art medical facility. He then showed an image of a typical classroom to show how little has changed since the early 1900s.
"Unfortunately there’s not a lot of difference in the last 100 years," Fawson said. "Technology hasn’t really transformed the classroom as it has with other things in our lives."
He walked lawmakers through a regular assignment for his geography and social studies classes, where students use images and footage in the public domain to compile a video of notable events throughout the year.
Fawson also showed a clip about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the perspective of a 9-year-old boy named Mahmoud, followed by a recording of an interview he conducted with a now-26-year-old Mahmoud through Google Hangouts.
"This never would’ve been possible even 10 years ago, but it is possible now, and it really hit home to everybody," he said. "That’s what we do in my geography class. We connect with other parts of the world and with other schools, and we get to learn from then as they learn from us."
Joe Jensen, principal of Orem Junior High, said he believes education has changed more in the past 10 years than the past 100 years. And, he added, by investing in technology, schools will likely see even greater change in the next decade.
Jensen compared public education to railroads, which struggled to adapt to new markets because they saw themselves as being in the train business rather than being in the transportation business.
"For a long time schools have been schools, and we haven’t exactly been education organizations," he said. "We have to become educational organizations. Technology is one of the ways that will help us do that."
But lawmakers also discussed some of the concerns that are often raised about new learning technologies.
Lockhart asked about parents who value the "old way" of repetitive paper and pencil figuring and rote memorization.
"How do you explain to a parent of a kid that that’s not necessary anymore?" she said.
And Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, asked Twitchell for clarification on a frequent concern expressed by critics of the Common Core State Standards, which expects students to not only apply the appropriate formula to a math problem but also understand the mathematical concepts behind those formulas.
Many parents locally and nationwide have expressed frustration that they are unable to help their children with the cumbersome and confusing math homework sent home since the adoption of the Common Core.
But Twitchell said what was sufficient for the older generations is not necessarily enough for today's students, who are competing for modern jobs in an increasingly global marketplace.
"They need other skills. They need to problem-solve and analyze," he said. "We need to make sure the parents aren't an anchor, because the kids need to go a little bit further."
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he has visited schools and seen classroom technology in use, but having the ability to use it himself helps him better understand the potential for application.
"Education has changed a lot since I've been in school," Niederhauser said. "Technology, I think, really enhances education."
Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, said the demonstrations reaffirmed to him that technology is an effective tool when coupled with an engaged educator.
"It shows how important a good teacher is to the entire process," Briscoe said. "Students plus technology does not equal learning. Students plus teachers plus technology can equal learning."
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