Thirty years ago, computers in primary and secondary classrooms were virtually unheard of. But in middle schools in Kansas, and in the North Fork Valley of Delta County, some of the earliest models of computer-based learning were already preparing students for the future.
Mike Jensen remembers it well. He was recruited by the Delta County School District in 1989 to teach one of the first ever technology-based high school classrooms at Paonia High School.
In 1987, Jensen recalled, the first middle school tech classroom was underway in Pittsburg, Kansas. Its teacher, Mike Neden, was professor of technology education and curriculum director at Pittsburg State University. In 1987 Neden and Max Lindquist received national recognition for their Explorations in Technology middle school program, which “changed the way education was delivered.”
Jensen saw early on how technology and education could work together. A Midwesterner, he took shop classes like drafting and woodworking at a southern California high school where he graduated in 1976. He had a knack for it, and his instructor encouraged him to pursue a career teaching shop.
Upon graduation he returned to the Midwest to study shop at the University of Wisconsin - Stout, his teacher’s alma mater and Wisconsin’s equivalent of a poly-technical institute, said Jensen. Computers had, up to that time, been largely limited to huge, expensive mainframes that filled entire rooms.
When he entered his master’s program in tech education in 1981, early Apple and Apple IIe desktop computers were appearing on college campuses. “That was my first hint that things were changing,” said Jensen.
Jensen’s master’s paper was one of the first written on a word processor. Formatting “was virtually nonexistent and the font very ugly, but it was a huge step from having to retype everything,” he said. “And that was all that mattered.”
Jensen’s education was ”very curriculum and instruction based.” He was also involved in education leadership and was the first president of the International Technology Education Association Board of Directors. Curriculum remained his focus throughout his career. “I still like to figure out the best way to deliver content in the classroom,” he said.
His first high school job was at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, teaching “traditional shop stuff like drafting and making tables, clocks and birdhouse” to huge classrooms of students.
Being “a generalist by nature,” and focusing on curriculum, he sought out unconventional courses and quickly discovered that the entire industrial system was moving toward technology. He started making changes in his own classrooms, setting up workstations, offering project- and problem-based learning courses, and allowing students to choose their own projects.
He went on to teach at Rice Lake High School in Wisconsin, the first high school in the nation to have computers in the classroom. It also had the first ever large-scale technology education program.
Four years later Jensen returned to Stout to work in communications and technology. He lectured on topics like fiber optics systems, how telephone hold buttons work, and which systems work best for which businesses. “I had some great people to work with,” he said.
But the high cost of computers was out of reach for most schools. Those that had them didn’t have enough for everyone and kids had to take turns. Drafting was still done on the drafting table, and designs were transferred to the computer using a cumbersome, complicated series of commands.
Jensen managed to get an early computer-aided design, or CAD system, a Terak mainframe computer with eight-inch floppy discs and a graphics display. At the time the math department did most of the programming, he said, and he was constantly looking for better software.
“I was always trying to make it real-world and applicable for my students,” he said. He had one group design Mason jar gumball machine, drawing all the components in CAD. They manufactured 300 of them using technology not yet available in most factories. “It was just a way of taking the first desktop computers and making them useful,” he said.
Students were catching on to the concept of computers. Video gaming was gaining in popularity and played a big part in introducing them to the public.
While at Stout, Jensen presented leadership materials on the challenges schools face in transitioning to technology at conference in Washington, D.C., when he met Mike Neden.
While most shifts in technology at that time were happening east of the Mississippi River, Neden was working for the Delta County School District and had established a middle-school classroom taught by Tim Cannell. Cannell grew up in Olathe and had taught shop at Pittsburg. He moved back to the area in 1987 to teach shop and science in Paonia.
Cannell and school board representatives visited Nedan’s classroom while attending a conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The district flew Neden and his wife to Delta County and offered him a job overseeing technology. At first he declined, but after staying the weekend and attending church in Cedaredge, he accepted.
At Neden’s recommendation, a year later the district hired Jensen to oversee technology-based education at Paonia High School. Neden had told Jensen that the district had a supportive superintendent in Laddie Livingston, a forward-thinking school board, and that his expertise could be valuable in Delta County.
“They were just visionary,” said Jensen. The board understood that students need opportunities to discover what technology offered, and Neden and Jensen understood that project- and problem-based learning would provide those opportunities.
The district partnered with Pitsco to create the Center for Applied Learning in the former Paonia High School shop classroom. Founded educator and entrepreneur Harvey Dean in 1971, Pitscho was the company behind the tech classroom in Pittsburg.
The district chose Paonia, recalled Jensen, because it was the only high school in the district that didn’t have an agriculture program.
Pitsco provided Technology Education Modules, or TEMS labs. They offered students a different way of learning from the traditional teacher as lecturer format, said Jensen. Students paired up and worked independently and chose their own projects. When they had questions, they signaled Jensen by pushing a button to turn on a light. Labs didn’t just provide an education in technology, they used technology to provide education.
“It was tough getting things going,” said Jensen. But within a couple of years, Hotchkiss, Cedaredge and Delta were also teaching through TEMS labs.
Thanks to Livingston and the board, said Jensen, Paonia and Delta County were ahead of the curve in providing education through technology. The board supported it, he said, as a way to give local students “the same footing as wealthy kids living on the East Coast,” by providing them the skills needed to succeed at any college, university or vocational school in the world. “It was lofty, but I think we accomplished a lot of it,” he said. “We did a great job of preparing kids for the workforce.”
Next week: What happened after the program began?