Picture A behemoth machine in a 6-by-6-foot room at Inver Grove Heights Junior High School in Minnesota with cables on all sides and a paper roll printing data that was input by ninth-graders hopeful that their numbers from a recent experiment would be analyzed better than they’d been able to do so far.
They had no idea that as they watched they were experiencing for the first time what we today take for granted: an early-model computer doing its job.
“It was like you’d see when you watch old movies and see the Teletype chattering away,” says Greg Utecht, coordinator of technology, information and media services at Lakeville (Minn.) Area Public Schools, recalling the out-of-control depictions of what people thought technology would look like in the future.
But that machine wasn’t just a Teletype. It was connected by acoustic modem to a prehistoric Hewlett-Packard 2000C, and watching it compute his students’ figures gave Utecht his first glimpse at how computers could help him better teach his students complicated concepts. That was 37 years ago, and he’s been using computers to drive technology in Minnesota classrooms ever since.
The Early Years
Since 1997 Utecht has worked at the Lakeville district, which serves a suburban south metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. But in 1972, his rookie year as a math and physical science teacher, he attended a session on using computers in the classroom to teach science—a newfangled concept at the time—at the annual Minnesota Science Teacher Association conference. The following month he watched his students at Inver Grove Heights Junior High School struggle with concepts like how to graph the results of their experiments. What if a computer could help them, he wondered. Knowing little of how to integrate technology into his classroom but intrigued by the conference session he had attended, he made a quick visit to his school’s curriculum coordinator to see if anything had been published on the subject. He was introduced to the book Computers in Introductory Physical Science. “Remember, these were pre-calculator days,” says Utecht. “I thought, if [my students] had large amounts of data, by being able to input data into a mainframe, if I could get kids past the tough math, I could get them to talk about the [physical science] concepts.”
Since this was long before schools knew what being “wired” meant, with a colleague’s help one Saturday afternoon Utecht ran 500 feet of telephone wire to connect the school’s only modem and Teletype, which were in his classroom, directly to that Hewlett-Packard machine described above. Using a program that Utecht and a colleague wrote that created a thin-lined graph based on the data from their science experiments, his students could finally interpret their results.
“Kids would do their labs, then plug their results into the computer, and it spit out data. They began to understand the concept of graphing. Watching the computer helped them understand,” says Utecht. “And this was such a powerful thing. It was because the technology was helping me teach science better that I learned the value of computers in the classroom.”
Four Decades of Technology
In the 1980s and 1990s, Utecht was a statewide commodity. In Rosemount-Apple Valley he was hired as a teacher on special assignment to teach instructional skills to teachers and staff while also heading science curriculum, and at Eagan High School he was the technology-in- learning coordinator. Under Utecht’s watch, Eagan became one of the first fully wired schools in the country. During that time Utecht taught instructional technology in the graduate education programs at several local colleges.
After Utecht moved to Lakeville, successful bond referendums in 1997 and 2002 led to his pushing for new buildings and for old ones to be entirely networked and retrofitted with new computer labs. Today, computers and phones—even a Voice over Internet Protocol phone system—are in every classroom and learning space.
Utecht’s commitment to technology in schools goes beyond helping to get the latest tools in buildings and students to learn how to use them. “People learn what they do,” says Utecht, “[and] teachers tend to teach the way they were taught.”
So he worked on a statewide task force commissioned by the Minnesota Board of Teaching that presented material in hearings on behalf of “Proposed Rules Governing Reading Preparation, Elementary and Middle School Licensure, and Technology-Related Licensure for Teachers,” which would require teachers to show evidence of integrating technology in teaching before being allowed to renew their licenses. Last July, the board unanimously adopted the task force’s recommendations.
Tech for the Future
Utecht is working with the school board and community stakeholders to secure money for an ongoing computer replacement, purchase and redeployment plan that will keep Lakeville’s technology current. He has worked on a series of agreements with other school districts, municipalities and counties to help link their fiber optic networks, bringing connectivity to each entity and saving his district over $8,000 per year while increasing bandwidth for all users in the district.
And to top it all off, the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) named Utecht its winner of the 2009 Withrow Chief Technology Officer Award for effectively integrating technology into curricula, classrooms and schools for almost 40 years.
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.