Cedar Rapids students master software at Roosevelt tech camp

During 3-day camp, students became acquainted with school's new tech lab

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For a group of seven Roosevelt Middle School students, summer camp wasn’t about canoeing and making s’mores.

School staff partnered with the Iowa Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research (ICATER) in the University of Iowa’s College of Education to host a three-day camp in the school’s learning supports lab. During the inaugural camp session, which began on Aug. 12 and concluded Wednesday, students entering seventh- and eighth-grade this fall used various computer programs all designed to make learning easier.

“We felt this was a good opportunity for students to start off the year and get better acquainted with the lab,” said Roosevelt Principal Autumn Pino.

At an education conference in April, Pino approached ICATER Associate Director Jim Stachowiak about having the camp as a way to jump start the lab for the 2013-14 school year.

The principal identified nine students and invited them to participate in the sessions. The seven who attended the free camp were able to receive focused instruction on reading and writing technologies that will be available to students during the school year on the lab’s computers.

“I think the goal was to get these students a head start on how to use those tools in a low-pressure environment just to be able to give them some confidence,” Stachowiak said.

The software the students used included Ginger, a proofreading tool; Snap&Read, which reads any computer text back to users and WordQ, which has a similar capacity to Snap&Read but for audio spelling and grammar checking.

At least two campers expressed a preference for Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a speech recognition program that allows students’ spoken words to appear in various computer programs. The students used it for Internet search engines as well as writing exercises.

“It helps me a lot,” said 13-year-old Jonny Reinert about Dragon NaturallySpeaking. “I don’t have to write (an answer) down and think about it.”

Reinert, who struggles with reading and writing, had used the software in the past but said the camp allowed him to become more fluent. He’s looking forward to using Dragon NaturallySpeaking in science and social studies classes next year.

“I like Dragon because I think it’s really helpful for writing,” said 12-year-old Jason Jaeger. “You don’t have to use pen and paper. You can just talk into the mic.”

Stachowiak also allowed the students to really take control of using the software by having them do a scavenger hunt with whichever tools they preferred. He was surprised to see the campers use multiple programs in tandem.

“Dragon is not an easy program to pick up,” he said. “These kids took to it pretty quickly … I’ve seen a lot of progress with these kids in three days.”

Students also completed a reflection free-response worksheet, an exercise which stressed the “self-advocacy” piece Pino wanted to instill in the students.

“I think the best part of the camp has been watching students who are very different in personality and have very different learning styles become acclimated with the tools and then finding a support or tool that works best for them,” she said. “The experience is really customized for each student.”

Pino called the 2013-14 school year will the first in which the school will offer the learning supports lab, which is available to all students, “with full fidelity.” Her plan is to offer the camp annually.

“I think we’ll just constantly refine it but overall we’re pretty pleased with the results,” she said.

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