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[an error occurred while processing this directive] Published: Aug 29, 2007 - 4:59:08 PM

Engineering the 21st Century

By Robert J Sodaro

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AITE’s new home is ready for a high tech learning experience

For more years than anyone can remember, education has been about “the three Rs”—reading, ‘riting (writing), and ‘rithmetic (arithmetic), and even given the bad grammar, they formed the foundation of a basic skills-oriented education program for schools around the country.

To be sure, over the years since this phrase was first uttered back in the 1800s, there have been numerous updates and improvements to the core precepts. In 2005, author Thomas L. Friedman penned a best-selling book entitled The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. In the book, Friedman suggested that the world is “flat” not in a physical sense, but flat due to the emerging, interactive nature of the Internet and digital technologies. He postulated that the competitive playing fields between industrial and emerging market countries had leveled the playing field, putting everyone on a more even keel.

As it turns out, Friedman’s book coincided perfectly with the educational vision of Paul L. Gross, the principal of Stamford’s alternative, inter-district magnet school The Academy of Information Technology and Engineering (AITE). In 2000, Mr. Gross, along with Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy; Jack Condlin, president of the Stamford Chamber of Commerce; and Dr Tony Mazullo, the Stamford Superintendent of Schools got together with the intention of creating a school that would tap into the then-existing technology bubble and educate students to access and avail themselves of the available technology. “Our students are not just competing with students from other Stamford high schools, or the students from Greenwich, Norwalk, or around the country—they are competing with students from India, Japan, China and other emerging technology nations,” Principal Gross tells incoming parents and students to AITE. “We need our graduates to be able to compete in a world market.”

Unfortunately, that technology bubble burst in 2001, but the desire to create a truly 21st century school lived on and evolved into what the school is today: a technological learning environment designed to help students enter college or the workforce with all of the skills required to succeed in a fast-moving, highly-technological world.

With the help of Mayor Malloy, Mr. Gross secured funding from the State of CT and founded AITE as an inter-district magnet school that was intended to draw from the five surrounding communities, including Greenwich, Norwalk, Darien, New Canaan and Ridgefield, a list that has since expanded to 10 nearby communities.

Originally located on the upper floors of Rippowam Middle School on High Ridge Road, AITE opened its doors in September 2000 with 180 students in grades 9-12. This past school year, over 400 students attended, and there will be over 500 in the fall when the school enters its new building, which was built on the Rippowam campus behind the existing school. In addition, the school has doubled its teaching staff. AITE’s population will grow to a permanent total of 650 students.

The new building was designed by Fuller & D’Angelo of Elmsford, NY, along with the engineering team of Altieri Sebor Wieber (Norwalk, CT). Conceived as a “green” building, the new AITE implements a sophisticated energy-saving design with a thermal storage system that harvests and stores energy during the low-demand evening hours and releases it for daytime use. This savings considerably reduces operating costs for the school as well as for the City of Stamford. It also has the positive effect of helping reduce the energy load on the Stamford “grid” during the daytime peak hours. Energy consumption is further reduced by the ample use of sun-shading devices on the large windows in the labs and classrooms and by a full light sensor system.

According to information from Fuller & D’Angelo, the building’s structure has one of the most advanced IT systems currently utilized in New England schools. This includes a wireless Bluetooth zoning system throughout the school, which allows students to use their notebooks wirelessly within the school itself and immediately outside the building. There are also plans to equip one or two of the AITE busses with wireless technology to allow students to better utilize their travel time to and from school.

The building features an open, exposed interior structure that is designed to assist students of architecture and engineering in their studies. As students enter the building, they are greeted with a three-story atrium and an open-air staircase that centers the building. All classrooms have windows on both the inside and outside, providing full a view to the classrooms from the hallways. Security cameras monitor virtually all public areas, and the open architecture allows views of the structure’s conduits and wiring. The central computer server area—visible from the main lobby—displays an array of servers, wiring and lights that not only support the school, but provide a “mirror-to-mirror” back-up system for the entire computer network for the City of Stamford.

Zomorrodian, the director of design with Fuller & D’Angelo who oversaw the design of the AITE building, approached the initial design by attempting something a little different in the way the school was designed. He said that it was his intention to not just design a building, but since it was a school, to use the design to actually teach as well. Thus, he chose to combine both Eastern and Western philosophies in the design. In Western architecture, philosophy is outward-looking, while Eastern sensibilities look inward. In this fashion, he approached the building’s design so that the way it is situated on the land takes advantage of the natural light as well as the rising and setting of the sun, with most of the eastern side of the building glass-enclosed, and the western side a solid wall.

He told us that he made a point to expose beams, ductwork, wiring and other parts of the building (which are normally hidden) so that engineering students could get a sense of how the building was actually constructed. According to Said, this would give them a better feeling and they would obtain much more thorough learning experience than if they were inside a dungeon box for their education. “Every time I’m in the building I get enjoyment from it; my knees shake. Every single person who was a part of the design team respects the building.” Every aspect of the building was important to him—not only in space, but the texture and colors of the walls. In his mind it was important to design something that would enhance the education of the students that passed through it. “I wanted to design something that would help the students to come up with something better than this in future.”

Right from the start, the education plan for AITE was to draw on the local communities and act as a college preparatory public high school that engaged students in a curriculum that was enriched by the power and reach of information technology (IT) resources. This technological focus was then built around a core elective program of IT and pre-engineering courses. It is important to note that the school is not just for those students with particular interests in these fields; rather, the emphasis is on utilizing technology as a strategy for creating life-long learners out of students.

According to Mr. Gross, he wants “to blend the natural appeal of student interest in technology with the systematic, process-oriented approach to problem-solving inherent in IT and engineering projects to make learning exciting, challenging and to stimulate our students’ critical, creative and complex thinking skills.” Thus, as a small learning community environment, teachers and faculty at AITE would apply cutting-edge “best practices” in classrooms, including project-based learning; smaller classes; longer class periods, collaborative learning; teachers as facilitators; and utilizing the integration of technology into every aspect of the learning environment.

All of the academic content courses are taught at the college preparatory, honors and advanced placement levels. The courses are taught in an alternate day block schedule of four, 88-minute periods each day, as this gives the students the opportunity to truly get into the “meat” of a topic, rather than simply gleaning the surface. Further, as Mr. Gross points out, college-level classes tend to be longer and more in-depth than most high school classes. By having longer class periods, he is helping prepare the students for that level of intensity. Mr. Gross went on to point out that their students are also eligible to take actual college credit-earning courses at both Norwalk Community College and UCONN, not to mention that the base-level curriculum that students must learn are actually higher than surrounding high schools. “We expect that students will complete four-year sequences in English, social studies, mathematics, science and world languages.”

According to Mr. Gross, part of the school’s goal is “to integrate technology into the lives of the children.” Since the school’s inception, this has been done by realizing that computers (and thereby technology) is not necessarily a new subject (to be added to the three Rs from generations past), but rather a tool that can and should be leveraged into teaching the students the subjects that they are already learning. One of the ways this was done was by making computer technology as available as possible in all courses. In 2005, Mr. Gross secured notebook computers for all of the students, who continue to enjoy the use of these computers. (Students are given the notebooks at the start of the school year and have use of them throughout the year.)

Needless to say, this full-blown access to technology, coupled with the modular approach to education and even the design and construction of the new school itself, play right into the school’s mission statement, which is to provide the students with a multitude of learning experiences in order to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for them to succeed in the challenges of the emerging global community through a dynamic, technology-rich, college-preparatory, small school environment.

The new building opens for the new school year on Friday, August 31, with the day beginning in the old Rippowam building and everyone walking over to the new building. The first day of classes is on Tuesday, September 4, when there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony that will include the mayor of Stamford as well as the Stamford Board of Education. On September 30 there will be a big gala event for parents, students and friends that will include tours of the building itself. According to Mr. Gross (who is happily playing his role of one of the proud beaming parents of this new building and endeavor), the entire month of September will be filled with a number of welcoming events.

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