Middle schoolers connect with laptops at UM conference

Posted May 29, 2009, at 10:34 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — More than 800 middle school students from across the state attended a daylong conference Friday to gain new skills with their state-purchased laptops.

The University of Maine department of electrical and computer engineering and Apple Computers, maker of the laptops used by Maine middle schoolers, sponsored the conference at the university.

According to Mohamad Musavi, chairman of the electrical and computer engineering department, the conference has been immensely popular over the five years it has been held at the university. Musavi said the gathering reached capacity within four days of opening registration.

The program is important because of the growing demand for computer-literate workers, Musavi said.

“We have a need in this area, not only for work force, but also in terms of research and development,” he said.

“Contrary to what you see in the nation, electrical and computer engineering is going very well,” he said.

Last year, nearly all the graduates from his department left the school with a high-paying job lined up.

The purpose of the conference is to give kids a deeper understanding of how to use their Apple laptops, which are provided through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative.

“There’s certain things that our students already know, some of the basics. But there are some new things out there,” said Pat Olsen, an English teacher from Cherryfield Elementary School. Her students, who she said are already computer-literate, were “very excited” about the conference.

But this conference was as much for teachers as for students.

Mary Learned, a teacher from Telstar Middle School in Bethel, said that her students’ knowledge of computers already has surpassed her own.

“Every day they’re teaching me something new. It’s amazing,” she said at a workshop on making YouTube videos.

Courtney Perry, a seventh-grader at Medway Middle School who plays the flute in her school’s band, already knows how to record songs using her computer’s GarageBand program. At this year’s conference, she learned how to design three-dimensional houses, something she said she is interested in.

Olsen attended a workshop on creating social networking sites for school projects through Ning, a free Web utility.

Ernie Easter, the presenter of the workshop and a teacher at the New Sweden Consolidated School, showed teachers and students how he and his students set up a Ning site for his class’ study of the Holocaust.

The site was nominated this spring as one of the top 10 best uses of a social networking site by EduBlogs. Easter said the project was a big deal for his students, who got to ask questions of a Holocaust survivor who contacted them through the site.

“The fact that my students could go back and forth with this gentleman and talk with him about his experiences … it’s been a really powerful learning experience,” he said.

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