Dr. Grant Geske, who teaches chemistry at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, has invented the “iClass Table,” transforming the face of what’s possible with effective educational technology.
Imagine a gigantic table-sized tablet that costs just $60 to $300 to build, depending on what equipment you already own. Thanks to Dr. Geske, anybody with access to a projector, Wii remote and computer can build such a device for close to nothing.
“Somebody with the attitude that ‘I want to bring something different to my students’ can do it without having to necessarily hurt the budget of their school, or even of their own pocket book,” Dr. Geske says.
The possibilities are as exciting as they are endless, and I am thrilled to speak with Dr. Geske about his monumental achievement, which but for a turn of fate, might never have happened.
Before arriving at Cushing two years ago, Dr. Geske conducted technology transfer work at Delaware University. Unsatisfied, he was asked on a whim by a colleague if he had ever considered teaching high school.
Dr. Geske, only a second-year teacher, oozes humility, even as Cushing—among the most innovative schools in the nation—provides him with $25,000 to build more units. Last year, he also secured a $50,000 matching grant from the E.E. Ford Foundation. This spring, he will travel to China to help a school build several iClass Tables and restructure its science curriculum.
With an advanced degree from Utah State University in computational chemistry, as well as a Ph.D. in chemical biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Geske could have easily taken a more lucrative job.
With the utmost sincerity, Dr. Geske expresses his concern over how American students are being taught science, and how much he wants to make a difference.
“It worries me because I don’t want my kids to not like discovering, not like thinking out of a box, being creative, being innovative for themselves,” Dr. Geske says. “And when I look at the way we approach teaching science in general, as a country, frankly, that’s what the curriculum is designed to do. It’s designed to stifle more than it is to create.”
After he accepted Cushing’s offer, Dr. Geske’s wife, who teaches elementary school, wanted a whiteboard for their four children to use at home. Not knowing the cost, about $1,500, Dr. Geske decided to search online for more affordable alternatives.
Dr. Geske found a series of YouTube videos about how to build a cheap smart board with a Wii remote. He downloaded some simple script and began to alter it, making the tracking more accurate and also allowing the use of more than one remote.
He decided to build a prototype for a summer class, testing how he could effectively use the device for students in the fall. Before long, he realized that he didn’t like having his back turned to an audience.
“I have had too many teachers who hide at the black board or the white board. That’s just not really my style,” Dr. Geske says, noting that he likes to be much more engaged with his students. “I flipped it on some cheap Ikea tables that I bought, and lo and behold, it worked.”
After Cushing requested Dr. Geske build more tables (to date, he has built 25), he felt obligated to use them every day. I give Dr. Geske tremendous credit for admitting that this wasn’t the “best thing to do,” especially during lectures.
“What I found was that . . . simply [presenting information] a little more up close and personal didn’t alter the ultimate delivery, which is still a lecture. Basically, you know what, a lecture is a lecture is a lecture,” he says.
But make no mistake. The pedagogical benefits are huge.
Dr. Geske can also see and control what’s going on at each of the tables. I recently attacked DyKnow for similar monitoring features. But since the iClass Tables are open and easily visible by groups of students meeting around them, the “creep factor” doesn’t exist.
With Wii remotes drawing students into a friendlier learning environment, iClass Tables also tap into the “gamification” of learning. In his own experience, Dr. Geske says the iClass Tables are most effective for problem sets, group projects and content sharing.
A screenwriting program also allows students to write directly onto the table, and teachers can easily respond to messages. iClass Tables also “boost student confidence” by allowing the teacher to display quality work on multiple screens.
“It makes them interested in playing around with what’s on the table—which is this ability to actually touch the surface with these pens, to manipulate and rotate, and research, interact, engage,” Dr. Geske says.
The more I chat with Dr. Geske, the more I can’t believe that he is only in his second year of teaching. He speaks with as much passion and dedication to his profession as any lifer. With every fiber of his being, he wants to inspire creativity and love for learning.
His ingenuity beautifully illustrates how educational technology can make a huge and lasting difference.
In at least one blogger’s humble opinion, Dr. Geske and Cushing Academy are leading the way—and contrary to so many mission statements, there’ s nothing wrong with following.