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Austin, TX. — When Erynn Petersen, a technology educator and advocate, wanted to prepare kids in rural parts of Washington state for technology and engineering jobs, she realized she needed to appeal to her audience. Compared to students in urban areas, many of the rural students she met had little access to technology, and no experience with robotics or software coding.

So Petersen rented an office in a small town and set up X-box consoles with large screens and comfortable furniture.

Access to technology
Erynn Peterson, co-founder of Station082 speaks at SXSWEdu in Austin.

“We thought when they came in to play X-box, we could slowly bring them up the pipeline to learning how to code,” Petersen said, during a session at the South by (SXSWedu) conference this week, a gathering of companies, entrepreneurs, technology advocates and educators interested in using technology to change teaching and learning.

The X-box approach worked. Middle and high school kids trickled in to play after school. Before long, they were attending evening classes at Petersen’s program, Station082, where they learned to code software and build robots.

With no funding on hand, the program set up a snack store to serve as a source of income. “We’re pretty much financing technology education with Mountain Dew,” Petersen said.

Station082’s story is an illustration of the stark technology gap between urban and rural schools, a hot topic here in Austin at the SXSW panels this week. Station082 was one of several organizations that presented a potential solution – at least on a small scale.

Petersen said that her program focuses on teaching students skills that they’ll need to tackle projects in future technology careers, including learning to try new things and make mistakes. “Technology isn’t just about learning to code, it’s about learning to experiment and fail,” Petersen said. The program now offers after-school and summer programs in Enumclaw, Wash. and Averill Park in upstate New York, where students get to take apart and re-build used toys, and create their own catapults and experiments using low-cost materials like plastic tubes and cups.

Throughout the four-day conference, there were multiple opportunities to touch, talk about and listen to speakers extol virtues of the latest technology tools and programs. There was also a focus on helping teachers tackle technology.

Presenters repeated the mantra that it is not the technology that will change teaching and learning in classrooms, but how it is used.  And teachers in return said they want to learn how to use it, but don’t want to be blamed if it fails.

Some school districts described ways they built high-speed systems and invested in digital devices for students, but also how they worked with teachers to help them use it properly. S. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County schools, spoke of the support services and professional learning that made a big difference for educators there.

So did school officials in Middletown, N.Y, Iredell-Statesville, N.C. and Horry County, S.C. who spoke in the aptly named panel, Go Big or Go Home. But as Petersen’s students in rural Washington demonstrated, sometime starting small works, too.

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