Virtual learning at Jacobs Fork Middle

College students use laptops during class to take notes, transcribe lectures and communicate with professors.
At Jacobs Fork Middle School, seventh- and eighth-grade students have those opportunities years before they submit college applications.
Jacobs Fork Middle is a STEM school, which focuses on implementing science, technology, engineering and mathematics concepts in the classroom.
The school participates in the STEM-ICT 3-D project that allows students to learn, build and explore three-dimensional, interactive worlds on computers.
The National Science Foundation funds the project with a continuing grant of about $1.5 million. Middle schools throughout North and South Carolina are participating in the program.
"Technology in today's schools makes learning an infinite process," said Dr. Jeff Isenhour, Jacobs Fork Middle principal. "It takes learning to a completely different dimension."
The Virtual World Consortium, through the help of Appalachian State and Clemson universities, implements the project. Teachers and students from Jacobs Fork Middle attended training seminars at Appalachian State University last summer to learn about the program and how to implement it in the classroom.
Seventh- and eighth-grade combination teachers Heather Deal, Michelle Sims and David Shook are creating virtual worlds for their students based on the subject matter they teach. Deal's virtual world, called Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, is about weather systems.
The 3-D worlds are created using a program called Google Sketch Up, which allows users to draw their virtual environments, from buildings to trees and ponds.
Students work through the virtual worlds, solving problems and learning while they communicate with other students and teachers via headphone conversations, text chatting or e-mail.
Using computers in classrooms, however, is a regular occurrence for Deal, Sims and Shook. The teaching team allows their students to bring laptops into the classrooms every day.
"Students are so engaged, and they're learning at the same time," Deal said.
Teachers and students worked together to develop rules and regulations about laptop use in the classroom, including punishments for those who disobey the rules.
"These are like sacred objects," Sims said, adding that the team hasn't had any problems with laptop theft or damage. "They really want this privilege."
Students aren't required to have laptops, and those who choose not to use a laptop aren't treated differently, Isenhour said.
Teachers implement teaching to utilize laptops, without putting traditional paper-and-pencil students at a disadvantage.
The teachers and students aren't stopping at laptops when using technology to learn and explore new subjects.
"We're certainly trying to utilize what (students) already have," Sims said.
Many students have hand-held gaming devices or music players that access the Internet and other web browsers. Teachers are exploring ways to use these devices in the classroom in a safe and productive way.
Sims created an online survey for students to determine what technology they own and are willing to use in the classroom.
"Students are teaching each other, that's what they're doing," Shook said. "They have to decide how they want to handle a project that's pen and paper on a computer, instead."
Sims, Deal and Shook will travel in March to the North Carolina Middle Schools Conference to present information about their laptop initiative.
Isenhour said he wants more teachers to become comfortable with using laptops in their classrooms.