Emerson Middle School is moving closer to the cutting edge in education, thanks to a $40,000 grant school faculty spent nearly two years chasing.

The Oklahoma Educational Technology Trust grant was earned in April, and since then Emerson staff has been hard at work selecting the right tech to enrich, and intrigue, students.

The new Innovative Learning Studio, once an old computer lab, and before that a band practice room, has been refurbished and repurposed this semester to house thousands of dollars in hardware more often seen on a university campus.

The collection so far includes 3D printers, 3D pens, iPads, drones, studio-quality cameras, computers and virtual reality stations.

"Our kids need to get their hands on technology as soon as they can, and learn how to use it well," Emerson Principal Candice Wojciechowsky, said. "Wherever they're going, into the work force, to the military, to college, they need to already have the experience of using that tech."

It took a lot of time and effort to get the grant, she said. OETT was established in 2001 to help outfit K-12 schools and CareerTech institutions with technology. However, OETT is particular about what schools they choose, she said. Grant requests have to follow very strict guidelines. Any submitted request would have to be written perfectly, and participation throughout, and even after the process, is required.

"It took about two years to write the grant. I had to go to a year and a half worth of meetings in Norman," Wojciechowsky said, Emerson had big plans well before school officials wrote in. "Our endeavor was to set up a room, an environment, to house all the different kinds of technology."

A separate $10,000 grant from Lowe's, earned in May, helped the school fix up the old upstairs computer lab into what it is now, she said.

She calls the $40,000 grant from OETT "seed money," a strong start, but only just a start.

Technology moves fast and gets faster all the time, she said. Increasingly, professions are touched by it, many already are defined by it.

A lot of the new equipment is unfamiliar, but as students and teachers get a feel for it, Wojciechowsky hopes to have it further integrated into lesson plans.

Not all the gadgets are strictly educational in the traditional sense, Emerson teacher Erik Thomas said. They might lean more toward fun, or cool, but that doesn't mean they don't add value.

Drones are an example. Walking into the Innovative Learning Studio and seeing kids buzzing phone-sized drones low above classmates' heads, lobbing pellets from a tiny cannon mounted on top, might look like goofing around but there's more to it, Thomas said.

Drones, like so many gadgets, are coming to challenge the status quo for a host of industries and how they operate.

"It's about learning the skills, not necessarily education," Thomas said. Besides, fun had with a drone, or with virtual reality, can foster an enthusiasm for the careers that made each possible to begin with, he said.

That said, some of the tech fits right into existing lesson plans. Thomas' class has been reading a book about a Polynesian boy, and he used Google Expedition, a "virtual reality teaching tool" to transport his class to the site of a Polynesian reef. By putting on the goggles, his students' entire field of vision is filled with the undersea scene, made up of real photographs taken at the site and stitched seamlessly together to provide an unbroken view in every direction they turn. 

Google Expeditions has many more VR experiences like this for locations all over the world.

Wojciechowsky said she's excited to see how staff will start using the tech in the months, or years, to come.

"It will be a different experience for them than just pencil and paper," she said. "Now you can take your students somewhere."

The OETT pays monthly visits to Emerson to provide half-day training sessions for the school's new educational tools, Wojciechowsky said.

"Honestly, a lot of the kids know more about it than my teachers do because that's their world," she said. "They have been raised with something in their hand."

As the teachers learn the full potential of the tech, new styles of teaching will follow, she said.

"There's just so little you can do without technology," she said. "Here at Emerson I don't have a single teacher who doesn't embrace it."

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