On the north side of the Lake Highlands High School campus, two small buildings stand seemingly alone. One step inside, and you instantly know why.
Welcome to either the Twilight Zone or the 21st century. Or welcome to high-tech laboratories where creativity is rewarded and innovation praised.
About four years ago, Lake Highlands broke new ground in high school education by shutting down the wood, auto mechanics and metal shops housed in these buildings, known as the annex.
Although instructors John Moore and Paul Matchniff agree those classes have their place, they also agree the high-tech computer classes now offered instead represent the wave of the future.
The program, the only one of its kind in the nation, has drawn plenty of attention from abroad. Recently, a group of educators from Latvia in the former Soviet Union toured the facility.
Both instructors credit Dave Pullias, RISD director of technology/occupational education, who put together a High Tech Task Force that spent more than a year planning the program, facilities and equipment. Representatives from 12 local high tech industries participated.
Moore and Matchniff each have labs similar in design and composition. Moore’s lab houses 16 Macintosh computers and two IBMs; an audio-video studio; a laser printer; a photography darkroom; facilities for desktop publishing, word processing and computer graphics; flatbed scanners; a lathe and equipment for computer animation.
One almost expects Mr. Spock to walk from behind one of the computer screens to give a logical explanation on how to operate all this hardware and software in a logical fashion.
Instead, students are grouped in teams of two and assigned to workstations for six weeks. They work together to master the computers, and after a week spent familiarizing themselves with the program, they are assigned special projects.
There is no textbook, and no teacher lecturing while their minds wander.
“Everything they need to know is in their own heads,” says the bearded Matchniff, or “Mr. M” to his students.
“There is a tutorial explanation (video-tape) at each workstation, and I offer help if needed, but we let the students work things out. Problem-solving is our goal in this class.”
When the program was introduced three years ago, students were understandably apprehensive about the new computer applications classes. Students were accustomed to building items such as wood stools or grandfather clocks, exercises that have been part of high school curricula for the past 100 years or so.
And even though building a stool may be important, working with a computer and applying that knowledge is perhaps more vital these days.
“Computers are just a tool,” Matchniff says. “It’s learning how to apply it that’s important. You come into some contact with a computer every day, so even as consumers, this knowledge is important and practical.
“For those who want to learn, we can’t keep them from it.”
Moore grew up in Dallas and earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in science from North Texas State University. He is in his 14th year of teaching at Lake Highlands and is married, with two young daughters.
“We’re facilitators and challengers,” says Moore, whose lab has more of a manufacturing emphasis.
“The students apply what they learn in English and math here, and they work well together in the teamwork concept.”
After six years in New Jersey as an AT&T branch manager, Matchniff jumped at the chance to return to his Texas roots last year.
Although he made more money in private industry, he says he missed the one-on-one contact of education and grew weary of the dog-eat-dog corporate business environment.
“I love working with kids,” Matchniff says. “It’s very rewarding, and you get instant feedback. They don’t play games, at least in a business sense. I missed that.”
Matchniff has helped organize a Tech Ed Instructors group in the Dallas area that offers cooperative solutions to glitches in programs and hardware.
How practical are the computer programs and classes at Lake Highlands High School? One example might be student and football wide receiver Damon Smith, who spliced together a highlight film from the state quarterfinalist Wildcats’ football season to send to his dad in New York.
Students compose the school newsletter in the lab, write and record music and make posters.
More and more students are coming to this technological “field of dreams,” where if you dream it – and hit the right keys – nearly anything is possible.