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Keeping Pace with Change: How Thornton Academy's curriculum keeps up with the rapid pace of technological innovation
Keeping Pace with Change: How Thornton Academy's curriculum keeps up with the rapid pace of technological innovation


As anyone with a computer or cell phone knows, technology changes at a brutal pace. It seems like we just settle into a new device, new software, or a new app, and then we’re forced onward, our knowledge always, already out of date. Now imagine it’s your job to teach technology to the next generation and imagine how challenging it would be to stay ahead of the trends well enough to bring them into the classroom. That’s the challenge facing Thornton Academy faculty.

Thornton’s recipe for keeping up with the pace of change includes two main ingredients: professional development for teachers and a curriculum that places innovation at its center.

David Arenstam, Chair of the Technology and New Media Department explains, “The pace of change is mind boggling. I remember programming with punch cards. My first job at a bank, the machine read the cards. You never wanted to drop those cards! Processors and systems are bigger, faster, stronger machines now allowing us to create things that never existed before. This year, 35-40 percent of L.L. Bean’s holiday business was through mobile devices. Programming for that is very, very difficult. Everything is moving to a tablet or mobile device. It’s not just a PC-and-Mac world anymore. It’s Desktop and Mobile worlds. 

“We have purposefully realigned our curriculum and created a whole new department to give students meaningful courses that prepare them for the workforce or college. There are three strands in our department: computer programming, New Media and Design, and Journalism, Writing, and Communications with cross pollination between the strands.

“We make a conscious effort to bring in speakers and presenters from outside: journalists, graphics designers, and computer programmers so that students can make those connections (see photo at right). As teachers, you constantly have to stay abreast of trends, issues, and programs. What we’re teaching today won’t be the same as next year or the year after. We constantly have to enhance teacher professional development.”

Thornton Academy now offers three computer programming classes, allowing a progression if a student wants to be a computer scientist. Java computer language is taught in the AP Computer Science course. Christopher Hall (photo right), who teaches engineering courses and advises the Robotics Team, explained other offerings, “Josh Smith and I will be teaching a C-based computer language called robotC. Those programming skills support both the robotics and engineering classes.”

David Arenstam said faculty “also teach three-dimensional art and animation, which is important in a number of areas, including the entertainment industry. Watch a movie trailer. How many elements on a movie screen do you think are created in an office, as opposed to a studio? Elsewhere, in the business industry you see 3D design used in advertising. People make their living designing and redesigning things like bottles and boxes to hold products. A company like Poland Spring has redesigned their bottles to reduce plastic use. Ergonomic furniture is another example. Manufacturing includes lots of ties to 3D design. We encourage students to think: ‘what would you do for work if you knew how to both write well and design three dimensionally?’ 

“Writing and communication skills feed into this same technology sphere. Programmers today work in teams, in different states, in different countries, and even in different hemispheres. They have to be able to communicate well under difficult working conditions.

“The overarching skills we teach are the ability to think critically and solve problems. When your boss asks ‘why are we doing things this way? How can we do it better?’ then that training kicks in. It’s about persistence. Fail. Try again. Keep going. You’re going to fail. You might spend hours chasing a ten minute fix. It’s not wasted time. You’re learning about problem solving."

CAPTIONS: [top] Thornton Academy teachers gather in the Professional Development & Support Center of the Technology Department in the New Media Center. Here, Thornton Academy hosted staff from Apple to teach new software programming strategies. Teachers from surrounding schools were also invited to attend. Technology professional development has become integrated into routine in several ways. [middle] Teacher Christopher Hall adjusts a robot that was engineered, programmed, and constructed by students. [bottom] Technology & New Media Chair David Arenstam (standing at left) invited L.L. Bean’s Senior Web Developer Samuel Rouse to lecture. Some of the points Rouse shared: “Computer programming turns lights on and off, controls emissions and brakes on cars, and turns on and off heat. If you get it wrong, your car won’t stop or your pipes freeze because the heat doesn’t come on. The average car has more software in it than a fighter jet. A jet would fall out of the sky with any problems. Think about the future and what software will be doing five, ten, fifteen years from now, but program for the here and now. Don’t try to be too clever. Make something that’s maintainable, learn from your mistakes, and don’t stop learning.”