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Saturn School of Tomorrow

The Saturn School: Technology's Cutting Edge

In St. Paul, a unique school uses technology to transform the traditional learning environment

Michael Hopkins

Taken from The Computing Teacher

April 1991

In this era of rapid change, educators must prepare today's children to live in the dynamic, unpredictable world of the future. The Saturn School of Tomorrow is St. Paul's unique attempt to achieve this. Challenged to follow the example of General Motors, which created the entirely new Saturn automobile, St. Paul educators created an entirely new school by blending the best methods and processes of existing schools with the most powerful and useful of emerging technologies.

Saturn opened in temporary quarters in 1989 with 160 students, and now has 300 students from fourth through eighth grade. In January 1991, it moved into a new home, a former YWCA in downtown St. Paul, where students have ready access to science and art museums and libraries.

The staff worked closely with the architect to design spaces that reflect the school's vision, and there isn't a single room that looks like a traditional classroom. In fact, we don't call our rooms classrooms. We have an art room, science room, music room, writing labs, computer lab study, Discourse rooms, multipurpose rooms, and an enormous cooperative workroom that includes a small media center.

Each room is wired for video and computer networks, and the learning areas have teaching stations, each of which includes a networked Macintosh computer and a monitor that can also display video from cassettes or disks. Since the rooms are designed for specific activities, teachers are not restricted to a particular room. Instead, each teacher uses the space that best fits the needs of each course, as well as a personal work area in the administrative section that also includes a large staff workroom, conference spaces, and a lounge.

Each student develops a personal Growth Plan (PGP), that includes academic, social, and wellness goals, in consultation with parents and an advisor. The staff uses information from individual PGP's to compile goals and design courses to match students' expressed needs and interests. The core curriculum includes reading, writing, and math, plus a wide variety of interdisciplinary offerings. All courses are open to students at all grade levels.

Saturn is a learner-centered environment. The curriculum is not content-driven, but process-oriented. We do not use standard textbooks, except as resources, and many courses are project-based. Students are encouraged to work cooperatively, though they may work independently if they choose. Emphasis has shifted from remembering facts presented by a teacher to finding, organizing, and making sense of the wealth of factual information available to today's student.

Although there is a good deal of technology available, Saturn is also not a technology-driven school. It provides teachers and students with access to technology as tools in five distinct areas: individualized learning; group interaction; management and coordination of student learning; student expression; and knowledge production.

Our teachers rarely present information to large groups of students. More frequently, they focus on individuals or small groups of students by using such technologies as integrated learning systems (ILS), as well as stand-alone software and hardware.

ILS offers students opportunities to develop reading and math skills at their own pace, enabling the teacher to take on a role as coach or learning guide. You may have trouble spotting the teacher in Saturn's ILS lab, as she or he is frequently kneeling next to a student and listening to the explanation of a difficult problem. The ILS also provides feedback on student performance, which the teacher helps students to interpret, and to make adjustments when necessary.

We currently use both Jostens and Computer Curriculum Corporation ILS systems. The Jostens system has an elaborate series of lessons that present information in interesting color graphics, many also including audio.

The CCC system has a more straightforward presentation of information, but is more responsive to the learner's performance. When students answer several questions correctly, the program moves them along to the next level of difficulty. If they answer incorrectly, it moves them to a less difficult lesson.

Another tool for individualized learning is stand-alone drill, practice, and simulation software. There are hundreds of such programs, covering virtually every subject area, and they can be effective ways to extend and support learning. Teachers who know the available software, the curriculum, and the students they serve can make optimum use of this software.

Students working independently or cooperatively also have direct access to such open and flexible technology tools as CD-ROM-based reference materials and encyclopedias, video and audio libraries, and online databases and library resources.

The Discourse System is a technological innovation that connects individual students with the teacher's computer via "Studycoms" -- keyboards with small text windows. The teacher (or a student) presents information and requests responses, which can then be viewed simultaneously on the presenter's screen. Discourse System permits lessons to be developed and presented on disk in coordination with a VCR, videodisk player, or slide projector. The system can be used for a didactic presentation or as an open-ended brainstorming and discussion tool.

Computers provide a realistic means of developing and managing individual learning programs beyond their ability to store and retrieve student records and test performances. At Saturn, we are developing software that will facilitate the process of setting student goals and tracking achievement, allowing students and their advisors to keep track of meaningful outcomes that are achieved in accomplishing personal goals.

Each Saturn student has a portfolio of proficiencies that contains examples of his or her work, including writing samples and special projects. The portfolio may also include photographs, video or audio tapes, and data disks.

Saturn's students develop responsibility for learning, in part, through sharing what they learn. Our technology provides them with access to many modes of information presentation. For some, the world of words is comfortable; others prefer a more visual, auditory, ortactile approach. A learning environment that offers diverse tools can meet the needs of many learners.

For example, all Saturn students use a whole-language approach to writing, and everyone writes every day. But I used to have a fifth grader who actively avoided writing with pencil and paper. He drew sketches, accompanied by the briefest of comments, and would make any kind of excuse to get out of writing. That all changed when the class got access to word processors and printers. I can still see the look on his face when, engrossed in his story, he asked if he had to leave when class was over.

Video and multimedia productions are powerful ways to document and share learning. Video is great for capturing the activities of tactile learners, and enables students to describe what they are learning as you watch them in action. At present, several students who have learned to operate video cameras and editing equipment act as resources for the rest of the Saturn community. We have recorded students displaying their art projects, demonstrating science projects, and giving dramatic performances.

Through technology, our students are able to create what never before existed -- at least in their experience. Computer programs like LogoWriter, LEGO RTC logo, HyperCard, and HyperStudio, together with tools that make possible original video productions, graphic designs, animation, and synthesized music, enable students to explore, create, and make personally significantdiscoveries.

These technologies present students with possibilities for new learning, both about the world and about themselves. They enable students to develop a sense of efficacy -- "I can solve this problem."

Teachers have to be careful to honor the learner in such situations. For example, an astute teacher may see an opportunity to show a student a better or more effecient way to proceed, only to find that the student would rather not hear about it until after the fact -- when he or she has already found a personally satisfying solution. In situations like this, the most useful role for the teacher is as a sounding board. Instead of trying to teach students how they should think about a problem, the teacher should try to help them understand how they do think about it.

Technology provides tools that can be used to achieve many different purposes. But while technology can provide a catalyst for school reform, it cannot direct change, which must be driven by vision. But the designers of school reform can use technologies to enhance new environments and bring about new visions. It is simply not enough for technology to do more efficiently or more economically what we already do in traditional schools. We must use the new technologies to enable students to learn what they do not -- or cannot -- learn in traditional school environments.

At Saturn we use technologies to create learning opportunities to meet the needs, abilities, and interests of each student. To achieve this, our teachers are prepared to embrace a wonderful variety of tools. They may not know everything there is to know about all the teechnologies we have, but they and their students are willing to learn how to best use these technologies in a unique learning environment.

* Originally poste at the Penn State College of Education's former special website section on the Saturn School of Tomorrow at