Saturday, May 5, 2012

My Transition into Technology

I always had a fascination with technology. I can recall attempting to learn COBOL, a programing language, from a textbook – a daunting task without access to a computer. In the early 1960s I was selected to work with a group of educators to explore possible uses of computers in public school education. This was a federally funded program aimed at developing applications on a regional basis. Eventually, the study led to the use of a mini computer to assist districts with such chores as scheduling, record keeping and some computer assisted instruction (CAI).

My first physical contact with a computer occurred in 1981 when the PTA donated an Apple II to Mill Hill, an elementary school in Fairfield, CT. I was a school psychologist at the time. No one on the staff took an interest in this machine, so I ask the principal for permission to explore its capabilities. My first encounter with the Apple II was to remove its cover and examine its interior. I was surprised to see so much empty space, probably to promote cooling of the mother board. I immediately thought that miniaturization of micro-computers was on the horizon.

I was so fascinated with the Apple II that I would remain after school well after everyone departed. Eventually, my very sympathetic principal told me to work on it at home. My only obligation was to teach computer basics to the gifted class; a challenge I readily accepted. At the time there was a scarcity of software available for the Apple II. The PTA provided me with Milliken Math Sequences, a program designed to teach basic math. I quickly learned to use this software and taught it to my gifted students. Later I would teach them BASIC programming.

Running existing software soon became boring, so I decided to learn the BASIC programming language which was native to the Apple II. I took some introductory courses delivered lecture style, but soon realized that learning a programming language requires a computer. After many late nights of endeavor, I finally mastered BASIC. Soon I was developing my own software. The special education department headed by Dr. Guth funded my efforts. I developed programs that would assist special needs children learn their address and phone number. Another program (The Gas Pump) taught them how to make change when making purchases. The Spelling Speaker was probably my greatest achievement. It utilized a speech synthesizer which would speak a word, use it in a sentence, and say the word again. The student would continue to type the word until it was correct before moving on to the next word. The program would record results that were observable by the teacher. The program would print a certificate of achievement when a student was able to spell all the words in the list without error. The Spelling Speaker also assisted in developing a student’s sight vocabulary (word recognition).

In order to better communicate with all the special education staff, I wrote a monthly newsletter Microcomputer Update for Special Education (MUSE). Content included reporting on how various teachers were using their classroom computers, software reviews, and trends in technology. Eventually I become the district-wide Computer Coordinator and MUSE was distributed to all staff and members of the Board of Education. I ceased to work as school psychologist. As Computer Coordinator, I was responsible for staff training which was offered during after school hours. I trained the secretarial staff in word processing. Faculty training consisted of introduction to computers, word processing, programming, and desktop publishing. Faculty participation was voluntary. I also offered spreadsheets, but always had zero enrollments. I was surprised that math and business teachers never took advantage of this opportunity.

I lost my position of Computer Coordinator when Fairfield eliminated all coordinator positions as an economy move. I was returned to Mill Hill School which was scheduled to become the first elementary school to have a local area network (LAN) and computer laboratory. The entire school was networked, including offices and classrooms. I was placed in charge of managing the network, running the lab, and training the students and staff. In addition, I served as half-time school psychologist. I was surprised how readily the third through sixth graders mastered computer skills that included keyboarding

At the age of 62, I decided to retire from public school education and pursue other technology endeavors. I will always remember the retirement party at a local restaurant given to me by the Mill Hill staff. The teachers presented me with a Raleigh bicycle. One teacher wrote a poem about me that still hangs on my bulletin board:

Wrapping things up with Ron

"When there’s a problem at Mill Hill
We always feel a little thrill,
Cause problems all necessitate,
A service call from Ron Abate!

He'll test your students for I.Q.
He’ll P.P.T. along with you.
The findings always demonstrate,
How we depend on Ron Abate!

While as our school psychologist,
His duties took a whole new twist,
In addition to psychology,
He’s our guru of technology.

When cursors freeze or printers stick
When E-mail’s slow and tempers quick,
We just put in an S.O.S
And Ron will solve the whole darn mess!

So, whether it’s psychology,
Or cutting edge technology,
We’d never, ever hesitate
To call our savior, Ron Abate!"

During my years as Computer Coordinator I had developed a sideline business, Galaxy Computer Services. I sold and installed Windows based computers during and after my work in Fairfield Schools. I stopped selling computers when the business became unprofitable. I concentrated on training and worked for various businesses and schools including Crazy Eddy (discount house), Morse School of Business, and Branford Hall. Finally, I worked full-time as an adjunct professor at Briarwood College until I fully retired at the age of 72. The head of the technology department wanted me to continue teaching part-time, but my decision was final. I was told that I would always be welcome if I ever changed my mind. What a gratifying way to end a long career!

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