AUGUSTA — To get a set of laptops for the fourth-graders at Farrington Elementary school, it took a personal connection — a friendship from school almost 30 years ago.
Starting next year, however, schools without that sort of tie to a company like Kepware Technologies will have the chance to benefit from the precedent set by the company’s gift to Farrington this spring.
Fourth grade teacher Jessica Walling was frustrated by her students’ level of access to technology. The two fourth grade classes and the two third grade classes at Farrington were all sharing one cart full of laptops. Walling’s students might start a research, writing or multimedia project on the laptops on a Tuesday, for example, and then not get them back until the next Tuesday.
Last fall she was talking about the problem with her brother, who told her that one of his former Lewiston school classmates, Tony Paine, tinkered with computers and coding as a kid and is now CEO of Kepware Technologies, a Portland software development company.
Walling sent a message to Paine on Facebook, asking if he could help her class get a set of laptops. He was immediately receptive to the idea, and they began discussing how to make sure Farrington got the hardware and software they needed.
Kepware Technologies ended up writing Augusta public schools a check for $10,600, which bought 24 HP laptops that made their way into the classroom in March. The two fourth grade classes share the new laptops, which also gives the third graders more time with the older ones.
“Now we can do small groups,” Walling said. “I don’t have to stand in front and lecture all the time.”
Walling invited Paine and Kepware Technologies founder and Chairman Corky Ellis to her classroom on Friday to see how her students are using the computers and talk to them about the importance of studying science and math. There will probably be more classroom visits in the future because company officials want to make a similar gift to a Maine school every year.
Walling’s students had put together a slideshow presentation of all the ways they’ve used the computers so far: research projects about biomes — classifications of geographical areas with similar climates — and famous Mainers, mini-tests with immediate feedback, responding to teacher questions in a blogging application and using online dictionaries. Many of the students were especially enthusiastic about the educational games.
“I don’t want them to think we’re just playing games on the computers,” Walling joked.
The students asked a lot of questions about robots after Paine told them that Kepware’s software connects and controls equipment in car and food factories, theme park rides and even for NASA.
“We don’t make robots, but we can communicate with robots,” Paine said. “Those robots don’t know anything unless somebody can program them.”
Ellis is a big supporter of school robotics teams and showed the Farrington students a video he shot at a high school robotics competition in Lewiston, at which the students’ robots had to pick up balls and throw them at targets or over obstacles.
Fourth-grader Collin Parks said he’s good at figuring out how electronic devices work and would love it if Augusta had a robotics team.
“I’d probably be one of the first people to want to be on the team,” he said.
Paine said donating laptops to an elementary school is an extension of Kepware Technologies’ efforts to build the pipeline of computer engineers and programmers in Maine. The company offers internships and college scholarships, but to take advantage of those, students must be interested in math and science by the time they reach high school and college, Paine said.
Starting in January, Kepware Technologies will seek applications each winter from classes that want computers. He said they’ll be looking for proposals written by students in collaboration with their teacher about how they can benefit from having more technology in the classroom.
Ellis told the students to stick with math and science even though they’re hard.
“We want people like you to really study hard and become better and better at math,” he said. “When we’re looking to hire people for our company, it really matters if they’re good at math.”
Fourth-grader Emily Caywood doesn’t plan on becoming a software engineer, but she will stick with science and math. She said she enjoys doing research on the new laptops.
“I intend on being a meteorologist,” she said. “It’s really fun to learn about different climates and biomes.”