Mobile classroom project poised to expand

Organizers want to expand a pilot program in a rural Arkansas school district that equipped students with laptop computers or video iPods so they could study science and math while riding to and from school on the bus.

The Aspirnaut Initiative began last year in the Sheridan School District, which covers 600 square miles. (See "Schools ride emerging trend: Bus-based connectivity.") The program’s intent: Let students spend their time on the bus more productively.

Aspirnaut Initiative director Julie Hudson, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said the program–which has proven successful on a pilot basis–could help the state with its long-term goals in preparing students to enter the workforce.

"There are many students in rural Arkansas, and many rural states in the United States, who have the challenge of long bus rides. There is a tremendous challenge in that that’s a lot of time each day … perhaps up to one-and-a-half to two hours on the longest routes each way, each day of the week," Hudson said while addressing a session of the House and Senate education committees last week.

The state has been focusing on courses that make students ready for life after high school–the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Hudson developed the program with her husband, Vanderbilt professor Billy Hudson, who is a native of Grapevine, Ark., in the Sheridan School District. The pilot program was developed as a partnership with the university and the school district.

Julie Hudson said the pilot program has been a success, and coordinators reportedly will ask the state Legislature in the coming session to fund an expansion. Hudson said 2,000 students could be added for each of three years at a cost of $2 million the first year and $1.5 million for each of the remaining two years. She said the program would be spread equally among the state’s four congressional districts, though school districts would have to apply to enter the program.

So far, Sheridan students in the pilot program have completed 14 semesters of study in addition to their regular course load. That includes one student who completed a year-long Advanced Placement biology course and earned a score of 4 on an AP test. The tests are graded on a scale of 1 to 5, with a "3" considered a passing grade.

Mena School District superintendent Diann Gathright said she is interested in the program for her district. She said some students have daily bus rides of up to an hour and 15 minutes each way.

State Sen. Jim Argue, D-Little Rock, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the program would require relatively little funding. He said the state already pays $185 per student in technology funding, but districts are only spending $58 per student on technology out of those funds.

Hudson said students who don’t have long bus rides could take part in the program by arriving at school early or using study-hall time to work on the courses.

Aspirnaut Initiative

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Technology Without Breaking the Bank resource center. With every dollar at a premium, school and district leaders are looking for ways to cut costs without sacrificing their education initiatives. The good news is, new advancements in technology make this scenario possible. Strategies such as software virtualization, software as a service, open-source software and open technologies, and a new breed of low-cost computers enable school IT directors to streamline their operations and bolster their ed-tech programs-without breaking the bank. Go to: Technology Without Breaking the Bank