Fit in the classroom of the future

Phil Rynearson and Malenna Hoes listen to a recording Hoes made on her iBook in the research classroom.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura
The classroom set-up at Rochester Athletic Club.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

In the back corner of the Rochester Athletic Club some fourth and fifth graders are preparing for music class.

The 24 students from the Elton Hills Elementary School sit, stand and kneel in front of iBook laptops. They are learning how to make music mixes on Garage Band. It is a basic software program that comes with the computer.

"This is sort of like your cookbook," says the music teacher. "Think of it sort of like a cook's encyclopedia because it's really big."

Music lesson
Students from Elton Hills Elementary School learn about the software "Garage Band" during their music class in their experimental classroom.
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The teacher has to use a microphone, so he can be heard over the din of other activities in the gym. Mobile white boards dot the classroom, and students work in front of miniature podiums and on floor mats, but no desks. Soon the kids are listening to different beats, picking out the ones they like.

"This song is awesome," Robby Nelson says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than 15 percent of U-S children are overweight. Research shows that sitting in desks, watching TV and driving to school are major contributors to obesity. So Dr. James Levine's goal is to get children moving. He is measuring their level of movement with Posture and Activity Detector strapped to each child's thigh.

Dr. James Levine is an obesity researcher at Mayo Clinic. He says he believes this is the classroom of the future.
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"We're evaluating the activity levels of the kids," Levine says. "We're evaluating the education attainment of the kids. And actually, what I find most interesting is that we're getting comments from the children, and comments from the teacher. And it's quite obvious that it's going to work."

Technology is key to Levine's program. Each child has her own iPod and laptop. Convenience technology items such as these are usually associated with sedentary children. But Levine says it does not have to be that way. He says classrooms need to be redesigned so children and machines can move and, in fact, keep moving. Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Williams agrees.

"Is there a way we can adjust the system as a way to meet the needs of the kids as opposed to always having the kids meet the needs of the system?" he asks.

Students listen to their teacher explain how to properly care for a laptop.
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Williams says he's interested in turning all of Elton Hills Elementary into this movement-friendly classroom. But theory and reality haven't yet matched up. One fourth grader is struggling with the noise, the technology and the reporters.

"I can't see cause that stupid big blackboard is right there," he says.

No child is moving around the room. But it is the first lesson. Phil Rynearson is the teacher for this multi-level classroom.

"I mean there is a lot of sitting right now," he says. "But I think the idea is I'll be incorporating the space into science lessons. I mean, even just being able to listen to a lesson on an iPod that I produced and just be able to walk and just listen to it, instead of just having to sit behind your table."

Superintendent Jerry Williams is interested in recreating this classroom in his schools.
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Rynearson thinks children can learn in a less structured environment. He also believes they can learn to work with delicate equipment vulnerable to drips, trips and being sat on by fourth and fifth graders.

Levine says this environment will actually help them learn. He believes it will soon become the cheaper way to teach.

"What will happen is educational software prices will come way down, hardware prices will come way down. And what will happen is the right thing to do is it will become affordable," Levine says.

Increased demand in a competitive market will drive down prices, he says.

Superintendent Jerry Williams says the program may not be for everyone. It's expensive and takes additional training and resources. He says his teachers and staff are critical to making it work.

"Can this be duplicated in other places? Yes, I believe it can," he says. "But it takes a quality staff to do it and it takes a well-thought out program to do it."

Dr. James Levine says he believes, in the long run, this is a smarter approach for schools and students. After the two week trial he will evaluate the data he has gathered. The computers will go to the school, and Levine will refine his idea for future programs.