Shayna Snyder, a third-grader at Crozet Elementary, plays Minecraft at Albemarle County Public Schools’ technology expo on Thursday. Credit: Credit: Josh Mandell, Charlottesville Tomorrow

In years past, most high school students could study the human heart only through pictures in textbooks.

Today, Albemarle County high-schoolers can view a beating heart on interactive, 3-D displays, rotating and magnifying it to observe the movement of each valve.

County school division staff hosted an open house event Thursday to introduce School Board members, parents and other stakeholders to virtual reality and other new technologies being used in its classrooms.

The “Learning in our Digital Tomorrow” event was included in the School Board’s agenda for its Thursday work session at Western Albemarle High School. 

“This event really underscores why it is important for the School Board to get out and visit schools,” said School Board Chairwoman Kate Acuff

Ira Socol, executive director of technologies and innovation for the county schools, gave School Board members a “passport,” instructing them to collect stickers from each classroom technology station and match them to educational concepts listed on the worksheet. 

Albemarle’s Learning Engineering, Access and Design (LEAD) department recently introduced a new learning plan for the school division that centers on five “‘spheres’ of support and opportunity’” for students: technologies, pedagogy, environment, culture and knowledge.

Students and teachers presented technology-powered projects and answered visitors’ questions in the WAHS library, which recently was redesigned to include a maker space, a music studio and a technology help desk.

Amira Dennis and Phoebe Rebhorn, both seventh-graders at Burley Middle School, used the Google Expeditions iPhone app to create a virtual reality tour of Monticello’s Mulberry Row, a street where enslaved laborers lived and worked during Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime. 

“Our project is a way to learn about what enslaved people’s lives were like back then,” Rebhorn said. “You can [virtually] stand there and imagine what it was like living there.”

Rebhorn and Dennis said their gifted resource teacher gave them the opportunity to complete a VR project instead of writing a traditional research paper about Monticello.

“Our Google Expedition would let a student in California see an important historical place they couldn’t visit otherwise,” Rebhorn said. “I hope people enjoy it, and have fun learning about Monticello.”

Desirae Smith, a fifth-grader at Greer Elementary School, programmed an Arduino — an open-source electronic prototyping platform — to make an LED bulb flash in a sequence of colors.

Smith said she had to adjust the code and electrical wiring of her project many times to make it work. “You learn from your mistakes, and you get better and better,” Smith said. 

Smith said she was interested in pursuing a career in technology. “There are not many women in the technology field, and I want to change that,” she said. 

“I’m super proud of the hard work [the Greer students] have done,” said Smith’s mother, Jessica Jackson. “I’m pretty amazed at what they can do.”

A group of third-graders from Crozet Elementary School showed how their class was using the Minecraft computer game to learn about ancient civilizations. 

Shayna Snyder explored a Minecraft world that linked to educational videos about Ancient China and displayed questions to check for understanding. A neighboring Minecraft world resembling Ancient Greece was visible from her vantage point in a Chinese pagoda.

Snyder told visitors that she would not be able to show them her favorite ancient structure, the Great Wall of China. “It’s really far away from here,” she said. 

Jayme Roland said she was pleased to see her son, Joseph, engaging with world history through Minecraft.

“[Joseph’s teachers] have taken something he is so excited about at home, and married it with educational content, and learning,” Roland said. 

The Crozet Elementary students played Minecraft on the Lenovo ThinkPad laptops that have been assigned to all Albemarle students in third through 12th grade. 

The School Board’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 includes about $3.78 million for the LEAD department, a 10 percent increase from this year. The additional funding would be used to add three full-time employees to its current staff of 13. 

The School Board has requested an additional $2.19 million for school-based technology integration staff for fiscal 2019, a 16.6 percent increase from this year and 74 percent more than the division allocated for that purpose in fiscal 2017.


Josh Mandell

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.