August 6, 2014

Merced County teachers to use computer modeling

Lawrence Livermore National Lab is holding a computer modeling workshop that offers professional development for local science teachers and introduces the application of computer modeling in accordance with Next Generation Science Standards curriculum.

A few high school teachers from Merced and Madera counties are training this week at UC Merced to use a new technology in high school classrooms with the help of federal researchers.

Lawrence Livermore National Lab is providing the training for science, technology, engineering and math teachers, who are learning a relatively simple version of computer programming that sets up computer models for use in classrooms.

Eventually, students will use the technology themselves and be able to create experiments on their laptops, said Jon Fuller, a teacher from San Jose Conservation Corps. Fuller has some experience with the modeling and served as a guide Tuesday for area teachers.

“If you’re studying earthquakes, you can’t make an earthquake in the class – the scale’s wrong,” he said. “But, what you can do is you can simulate it. Students then get a visual component.”

While using the computer modeling program, teachers will essentially be learning to write simple computer programming code. In turn, students will be learning code. So students should be developing computer skills to accompany the knowledge they gain, said Michael Boykin, a Golden Valley High physics teacher in the class.

He said technology-oriented education could pay off for young people in Merced.

“By exposing them to code in high school, when they go into college they can take it farther. They’ll have a head start,” he said. “We’ll be producing more Americans who can fill lucrative-paying jobs.”

Teachers and students could use the computer models to study the affects of wolves preying on sheep, the acceleration of a car or how the sun will burn out, to name a few examples.

The Lawrence Livermore National Lab is a federal research facility set up by the University of California system.

Computer engineer Vic Castillo with Lawrence Livermore said the lab wants to see more computer modeling and simulation used in university classrooms. So, he said, universities look to have students exposed to computer modeling in the elementary and high schools in the area.

Technology is increasingly more commonplace in many classrooms. Students at El Capitan High were assigned Google Chromebook laptops when classes started in 2013.

More laptops will also begin to roll out starting this month. The Merced Union High School District committed earlier this year to spend about $8.7 million from different funding sources to see that all students have their own computer for instruction.

Also this year, Merced City School District Board of Education members approved buying 4,500 Chromebooks for third- through eighth-grade students to use this fall.

For a teacher who studied biology, teaching computer programming might be cause for hand-wringing. One teacher in the class Tuesday, Lea Smith from Buhach Colony, said the programming was “intimidating” at first but she later warmed up to it. “(Coding) wasn’t something that I thought I ever could do, but it’s pretty cool,” she said.

Introducing the technology to classrooms fits into Next Generation Science Standards, new teaching methods for kindergarten through high school that focus on helping students develop analytical skills for use in scientific techniques, such as posing questions, solving problems, and studying cause and effect.

Kellyn Griffin, an earth science teacher from Madera High North, said many of the methods are based on teaching students how to think critically and use information, as opposed to the former method of memorizing facts.

“The new standards teach you why and how the sun is going to burn out in (billions of) years, not just that it is going to,” she said.

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