Technology for school projects

Many school projects don’t need fancy technology. Paper, coloured pens, and you’re set. Sometimes, though, the teacher will specifically ask for internet-based research, a computer slide show or a blog entry. Here’s a guide to making the most of the technology available.

brainstorm and organise

Mind mapping is a great way for a child to brainstorm ideas for the project, organise facts and create an instant visual summary of the information needed.

You start with the main concept or topic in the centre of the page. In my example, it’s Dinosaur Project. Branch out from the centre nodule to subtopics such as “When did they live?”, “What did they eat?”, “How did they move?”

You can do it on paper, but fun software exists to help you make the mind map look professional. Try PersonalBrain (www.thebrain.com) or Edraw Mind Map (www.edrawsoft.com).

You can also draw mind maps using your word processor.

online research

The internet is a great source of information, provided that the source is reliable, and your child is search-engine smart.

If the topic of the project is dinosaurs, typing “dinosaurs” into Google will provide over 53 million hits. Overwhelming? You bet. Try to narrow it down: get them to think what specifically it is they want to find out about dinosaurs. For example, type in “flying dinosaurs” to get more focused information.

You can limit your search to exclude something (e.g., pterosaurs) with a minus sign by searching for “flying dinosaurs -pterosaurs”. You can also choose to see only news items, or only data that’s been updated in the last month. The search engines are very forgiving, so you can even type in questions like “what did the dinosaurs eat” and “amazing dinosaur facts”.

Once you have your list of hits, it’s a real art deciding which hits are the ones to follow. Help your child choose the sites that look kid-friendly and reputable.

Better still, suggest your child go to a children’s portal or search engine before they Google.

Brilliant starting places for your school project include:

Encyclopaedia Britannica for Kids: www.kids.britannica.com

4 to 40: www.4to40.com/encyclopedia

Fact Monster:www.factmonster.com

How Stuff Works:www.howstuffworks.com

Science Made Simple: www.sciencemadesimple.com

computer basics

To a child, computers are a bit like magic (they can do anything) and a bit like Lego (should work no matter how you use it). Most children tend to have an instinctive feel for how to work computers, and they will astound you with how much they know about navigating Windows and finding cheats for Club Penguin puzzles on Youtube.

Still, your computer-wizardsmight not know these tricks:

  • Backup.Assume the Grinch will steal the hard disk as soon as you leave the computer unattended. If you want to keep something, copy it onto a flash drive.
  • Save your work often: every 5 minutes or every time you get something right is a good habit.
  • Right-click to get the menu. Surprisingly, they know about the single clicks versus double clicks, they understand the mouse wheel, but many have never noticed PC mice come with two buttons.
  • Start the application and wait. Don’t click on it again or it’ll open another copy of itself. You know the computer is busy when you see the hourglass symbol.
  • Call the file something meaningful. “Megan - dino project Year 4” is more useful than Document17.

Older children can be introduced to the concept of directories and can sort their files into different folders (Maths, English, Social Science, My Birthday Lists, etc).

essential software skills

Playing around with an application is a good way for the kids to learn its functionality. To be able to do school projects, however, it is important that children master a few core skills.

Word Processor skills include:

  • Changing font, text colour and size.
  • Spell-checking.
  • Moving text around.
  • Copy-pasting and resizing a picture.

Presentation Software skills include:

  • All the word-processing skills above.
  • Selecting a slide template.
  • Creating your own slide template.
  • Inserting speaker’s notes.
  • Inserting sound and video.
  • Running the slide show.

Digital Video Editing skills include:

  • Downloading the video from the camera.
  • Selecting video clips and arranging them in a sequence.
  • Applying effects and transitions.
  • Creating text for captions and movie credits.
  • Burning the ready video to a DVD.

How to blog

Blogging is becoming a popular school project because it often gets reluctant writers to write. It also teaches children to communicate in full sentences, not in Text Speak. Most importantly, it enhances communication skills by making you imagine what other people might like to read about and how to get them to comment on your posts.

Blog posts can be enhanced with charts, artwork, quizzes for the readers, polls, photos and videos; but if the blog is visible to the public, you will want to set up privacy rules.

You can create a totally safe (i.e., not public) blog for your children on www.kidblog.org (the site is designed for teachers but parents can use it too).

Create a website

A website dedicated to a school project is nothing more than an electronic poster with multiple pages. It allows your child to organise and display information in an eye-pleasing, creative way. It also allows the audience the fun of hands-on interaction.

Many internet sites offer free website hosting and easy to use website writing tools. http://doodlekit.com is one of many that should appeal to pre-teens.

the most important lesson

technology evolves at such a head-spinning rate, it doesn’t really matter whether your child’s computer is a PC or a Mac, or which word processor they learn to use.

The most important thing we can teach children is to embrace technological progress and not to fear changes.

Instil in them curiosity that makes them want to experiment with the software, and the courage to help them tinker. Reward resourcefulness in solving their own computer-related problems. Teach them concepts rather than steps, and the way of thinking rather than specific packages.

A truly computer-literate child is one who gets a disc with a programme they’ve never seen before, proceeds to install it and figure out what the software does and how to use it.

basic troubleshooting

  • Are all the cables connected properly?
  • If using cable-less hardware, is the battery flat?
  • If the internet is down, switch off the modem router for 2 minutes, then switch it back on.
  • If the computer seems to hang, press the Control, Alt and Delete keys all at once to see which application is not responding.
  • If you have trouble installing the game, check the minimum hardware requirements and disk space available.
  • If a game crashes, check the internet for patches or read how other people solved the problem.
  • Reboot. If it still won’t work, do a hard reboot or switch off the computer for 15 seconds.
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