Business and Education Leaders Revise Learning Goals

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Looking for support in revising your curriculum to reflect the needs of 21st-century learners? A new online resource could help: On Aug. 2, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), a national coalition of business and education leaders, issued a revised plan to help students and educators achieve 21st-century learning goals.

According to P21, the group’s revised framework “addresses key [concerns] by developing a clear vision for 21st-century student outcomes in the new global economy.” For the first time, the plan also “defines how school systems can best support these outcomes,” P21 says. This latest offering builds on the organization’s previous efforts to guide the integration of so-called “21st-century skills” into the curriculum. It’s essential, say coalition members, that students have a strong grasp of these skills for the United States to remain competitive in the 21st-century economy.

To help promote what P21 calls “real-world applications of content,” the coalition has added a new skills category, called “Learning and Innovation Skills,” to its framework. These skills distinguish “those students who can thrive in the complex life and work environments of the 21st century,” and they focus on creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration, as well as mastery of information, media, and technology skills–all of which are “essential for preparing students for the future,” according to Charles Fadel, a P21 board member and global education leader for Cisco Systems Inc. Fadel added: “We live and work in a technology- and media-driven environment, marked by access to an abundance of information, rapid changes in technology tools, and the ability to collaborate and make individual contributions on an unprecedented scale.

To be effective in the 21st century, today’s students must be able to exhibit a range of functional and critical-thinking skills related to information, media, and technology.” Other skills stressed in the new framework are what P21 calls “Life and Career Skills,” such as flexibility, accountability, innovation, self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, leadership, and responsibility.

According to P21, these are skills that many U.S. employers say are increasingly hard to find among prospective employees. Core subjects still included in the revised framework include language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science, geography, history, and government and civics, as well as such 21st-century additions as global awareness; financial, economic, business, and entrepreneurial literacy; civic literacy; and health literacy. continue reading

Schools Aim to Fill IT Job Demand

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Employers across the nation are finding it increasingly difficult to fill information technology (IT) positions, mainly because of a shortage of qualified entry-level and advanced employees, according to industry experts. Contrary to what many people believe–that available IT jobs are on the decline–businesses throughout the United States say the IT sector offers more job opportunities than ever, and they’re struggling to find employees to fill these many openings.

Industry insiders point to a few reasons for the shortage, including the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law and lingering perceptions from the dot-com bust that occurred earlier this decade. Now, experts are trying to change these perceptions–and they’re looking to schools for help.

Part of the reason many people think the IT field holds little promise is they don’t understand things have changed since 2000 and 2001, when the IT field took a hit, said Gene Longo, senior manager of U.S. field operations for Cisco Systems’ Networking Academy program. “In 2000 and 2001, when the dot-com bust happened, and then [immediately after] September 11, we saw lots of layoffs in the IT and tech industries,” Longo said, adding that many students and professionals shied away from the IT field when they saw jobs were scarce. But that was then.

Job opportunities in areas such as computer software engineering, computer support, and systems administration are expected to increase must faster than the average for all occupations, with computer software engineering projected to be one of the fastest-growing occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “2006-07 Occupational Outlook Handbook.”

According to the federal agency, computer systems analysts are expected to see a 31-percent increase in total employment from 2004 to 2014. Network systems and data communication analysts are expected to see a 55-percent increase in total employment during that time, and computer software engineers should see a 48-percent increase in employment.

Longo believes another reason for the lack of qualified IT employees in the United States can be traced to high school reform and NCLB, which puts the focus squarely on core skills such as reading, science, and math–and therefore might not give students the chance to explore IT courses or electives while in high school. continue reading

Student Programming Competitors Meet Bill Gates

Microsoft Corp. on June 26 hosted some of the finalists for its 2007 Imagine Cup, a software programming contest open to college students worldwide. The final judging will take place in August, and students are competing for a $25,000 grand prize. What’s notable among this year’s entries is how students have tackled some serious subjects, said Microsoft’s Craig Mundie–such as software that helps students with disabilities.

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The Works Desk by Smith SystemWhen Microsoft Corp.’s worldwide student software programming competition began four years ago, many projects that emerged were “fun,” according to Craig Mundie, the company’s chief research and strategy officer. There was no shortage of smiles as Mundie and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates visited June 26 with some of the finalists from this year’s Imagine Cup. But the problems the university students’ projects addressed–education gaps in rural China, or the way blind and deaf students are shut out of mainstream classrooms–were much more serious than the music-player programs Mundie remembers from the early days.

A team of students from Egypt presented a program that converts classroom tests into different formats to suit students with different disabilities, such as dyslexia or attention-deficit disorder. A French group worked on a joystick-style mouse and software that helps students with physical disabilities participate in some activities, such as practicing “handwriting” on a computer screen.

“They have moved gracefully from entertainment to serious” subjects, Mundie said in an interview with the Associated Press. Gates and Mundie spent a few minutes with each of the 10 teams that converged at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. The teams came from as far away as Hokkaido, Japan, and as near as Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

In August, these teams will compete with 100 other groups of finalists in South Korea for prizes of as much as $25,000. In all, the competition awards more than $170,000. For many of the student programmers, meeting Gates was quite a rush. “The best part was seeing Bill’s face and realizing he was genuinely interested,” said James Alexander, a 22-year-old who just graduated from the University of Hull in England.

His team demonstrated a game that teaches young children to write computer code by asking them to control fish in an aquarium. Eike Falkenberg, a 30-year-old German graduate student, liked the way Gates picked up the device his team demonstrated and started playing with it. “He’s still like a little boy when he sees new technology,” he said. continue reading

Furniture with Room to Grow

In classrooms across the nation, students spend untold hours sitting at desks and tables working on their lessons or listening to their teachers. That lack of movement might not have been a concern years ago, when children’s time away from school typically was spent outdoors playing and exercising. But as children spend more time in front of a video screen than on a ball field, greater numbers of them are becoming overweight.

The time they are tethered to their classroom chairs and desks only accentuates their sedentary habits, and the prolonged lack of body stimulation can make it harder for them to concentrate. The right kind of furnishings in a classroom won’t by themselves turn a generation of inactive, out-of-shape students into physically fit health buffs, but schools can provide seats, desks and chairs that are better suited to keeping students’ bodies active and their minds alert.

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Measuring up If children are getting bigger, the classroom furniture they use should get bigger, too. In some cases, a child’s growth spurt can make a right-sized desk a confining and uncomfortable place. If a chair or desk is too small for a student, his or her discomfort could make it difficult for them to perform in the classroom.

“The kids are getting bigger,” says Celestine Hart, director of purchasing for the Lansing (Mich.) school district. “I have seen where we’ve ordered furniture advertised for kindergarten and first grade not being large enough. Now we are looking a little closer and measuring to make sure what we are getting is big enough.” The size issue also comes up at the high school level, where the desks available aren’t a good match for some beefed-up football players and other large students.

“Some of these students don’t fit into some of this furniture,” says Laura Sarelis, an interior designer with Kingscott Architects in Kalamazoo, Mich. “They aren’t children anymore. They’re full-grown men.” The solution to accommodate these students is more flexible classroom furniture. Instead of attached desk-chair combinations, many schools are using chairs that are separate from desks or tables. Adjustable desks and tables can be matched to the size of a particular student.

Instructional benefits Furnishings that enable teachers to explore different methods of instruction can enhance a student’s learning experience and provide more movement and stimulation than a day stuck in a desk and chair. That means furniture that is flexible — tables that can shift from sitting to standing height; desk surfaces that can be placed at different heights and angles; and tables, desks and chairs on casters so they can be moved easily and quickly.

“Whether you are obese or petite, a football player or a piccolo player, everybody is different,” says Sarelis. “In our workplaces, we expect that our chairs are adjustable and our desks are adjustable. Why shouldn’t we expect that in schools?” In some cases, Sarelis says, teachers have to be convinced that giving students the ability to adjust their tables and roll their chairs won’t lead to anarchy or just be another fad that fades away in a few years. “You’re giving students the opportunity to move from a sitting to a standing position,” she says, “just like workers in an office might walk to the water cooler or the coffee area to change their environment.”

Price is a critical component of school furniture purchases, but the staff members who are buying the chairs and desks should be weighing more than just price. In Lansing, Hart says the purchasing department meets with staff members to determine what kinds of furnishing would create a better classroom environment.

“Working in groups is a lot more prevalent,” says Hart, “so we have been purchasing more tables. You can’t have desks bolted to the floor anymore.” In deciding what to buy, Hart says she has to be convinced that what teachers or staff members want will enhance the learning environment. “We have to try to figure out what is a teacher’s personal preference vs. what is truly an instructional issue,” says Hart. “It’s a balancing act.”  continue reading