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Regional Media Center a Treasure Chest of Teaching Tools

For rent: The sky. Cost: $50. Assembly required.

This “sky” is inside the StarLab, a portable planetarium that looks like a big, gray, glob of a bounce house from the outside. When students walk inside, though, they find themselves in darkness except for the stars of the night sky projected on the ceiling.

Luke Vandenburg frequently used StarLab when he was teaching third- and fourth-graders at Byron Center’s Marshall Elementary about Greek mythology. “It gave them a chance to see what nighttime looked like and to be able to correlate it to the outside,” Vandenburg said.

Plus, it was cool. “Their reaction was always the same when they walked in — lots of ‘ooo’s,’ and lots of ‘wows,’ ” he said.

StarLab is available to schools through the Regional Educational Media Center, which serves Kent, Ionia and Montcalm counties. The center’s offices are tucked inside the KISD Educational Service Center on the Kent ISD campus.

“Our main goal is to help schools save money,” said Ron Houtman, director of the center.

Houtman noted renting the StarLab for $50 from the office is a lot less expensive than busing students to a planetarium. It’s easy to set up and takes about 15 minutes to inflate. It’s contained in several large boxes and a super-large athletic bag. Those renting must be a member of the REMC.

StarLab may be the largest single item that can be borrowed from the office, but its collection of DVDs and VHS tapes (yes, some schools still use VHS equipment) is the largest collection. Shelves and shelves are filled with thousands of CDs and tapes for classroom use, which help teachers supplement learning about everything from the Civil War to Bill Nye the Science Guy.

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 For students with serious reading difficulties, help is available – from both teachers and technology. Lowell High School uses a computer program that reads tests aloud to students, while Kent City Elementary provides devices that read story books to pupils.

Dyslexia Causes Struggles for Students, but They Can Still Excel – What do Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison and approximately 20% of students have in common? They have been forced to approach learning differently due to dyslexia. So have many students in the Kent ISD, but early diagnosis can help them learn to read.

Toys like this push-button monkey help students learn cause-and-effect
Toys like this push-button monkey help students learn cause-and-effect

Saving Teachers Time

When Houtman gets a request for help from a teacher, he and other center employees search for the material. “(Teachers) don’t have a lot of time to track down this stuff,” Houtman said.

REMC also provides learning devices for students with cognitive and physical ability differences. This includes toys like a monkey that bangs cymbals and a cat that meows when a button is pushed, teaching students cause-and-effect.

Houtman builds some of the educational equipment himself. “Even though it looks simple, it’s helping the student,” he said. “A lot of it is looking at a kid and looking at his abilities to see what is needed.”

Another piece of equipment allows students to read email even if they can only move their head or use their eyes. The eye-gaze webcam looks at a person’s eyeballs to determine what he or she is thinking, then types it so others can understand. Houtman said this is a bit like the device the famous physicist Stephen Hawking uses. Huge computer mouses and oversized keyboards also are available.

The Creation Room

Stickers, pop-up sponge art, magnets, shrinky dinks and hundreds of shapes and letters can be made in the room that houses the Ellison Die Cut. Its walls are lined with hundreds of wooden die pieces. Any type of material you can cut with scissors can be cut with the machine, said Dee Miller, a team leader at REMC.

“People love to come in here,” Miller said of the room, where teachers can make hundreds of types of paper shapes for education purposes and classroom decoration. “The uses are endless.”

The center also has computers that can make several types of professional quality signs, from large banners to those bumper stickers that say “I’m a proud parent of an honor roll student.” Said Miller, “It not only saves a lot of money, it’s cool.”

Miller describes the REMC as the “best­-kept secret” at Kent ISD. Even though it’s been around for more than 20 years, as teachers retire the new ones replacing them aren’t aware of what’s available there.


REMC Association of Michigan

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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