When Michelle Martinez began teaching 2 1/2 decades ago, her classroom setup was straightforward.
"We used overhead projectors," says Martinez, a social studies teacher at Thurston Middle School in Laguna Beach, California. "Now in my classroom I use an iPad to project to three 80-inch TV screens."
Technology has, undoubtedly, changed education.
Thanks to the Obama administration's ConnectED initiative, 98 percent of students attending K-12 public schools will have broadband internet access by 2018. Educators say accessing the internet is critical to student engagement these days.
"It's not that kids have to be entertained, but with regard to education, you have to be versatile to keep them engaged," Martinez says.
At Thurston, where every student has access to a digital device, Martinez works in a 4Cs Learning Environments classroom. The four Cs stand for collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking. The room is designed with circular tables and swivel chairs. Technology is at the center of the model.
"Everything now is done digitally," she says. "We teach digitally. They take notes digitally. There are apps where everybody can be on a computer, and I can monitor everything they are doing. So if they are off on a different tangent on their screen, I can see it. " Then she can redirect them.
For Martinez, unique lesson planning has become a mother-daughter effort. She worked in tandem with her daughter Noelle — who is studying forensic anthropology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas — to create a wildly popular forensic and mock trial curriculum that is part "CSI" and part History channel.
With help from Noelle, students investigate crime scenes involving historical figures, such as a mock murder trial of King Richard III of England. Martinez says they took some liberties with the actual history of the death of King Richard III, and put on trial King Henry the VII (Henry Tudor) for the murder of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
The forensic trial exercise began in 2014 as a unit within a history class. The unit has since been expanded into an elective class and extracurricular club with 40 active members.
Noelle teaches her portion of the lessons from Waco via a telepresence robot, which has an iPad "head" that displays her face on the screen. Much of the forensic evidence — such as a replica of Richard III's scoliosis-afflicted spine — is created using a 3-D printer.
Martinez has received support to fund the project. She has twice been awarded a $5,000 Innovation in Education grant from Cox Communications.
"Education has changed so much," says Lacey Gaitan, a community relations manager at Cox. "The way that people learn and access information is changing. We really want to be a part of that. We see ourselves as an education and technology partner out there supporting our schools and our community and helping the children in our service areas really learn and advance."
This past fall, Martinez's students showcased the program to a larger audience as part of Cox's Smart Home event in Rancho Mission Viejo, California. The exercise involved Noelle teaching the lessons via Skype — with a small group of students on hand examining and creating evidence and a larger group of students participating through a Google Hangout at Thurston.
"No matter where you are anymore, the internet connects you," Martinez says. "I can be in Texas. I can be in Orange County. Or I can be in my classroom within the same time period doing the same activity."
For Cox, helping to fund exercises like the one at Thurston is part of a bigger picture.
"Our company, our whole business, is really based on continued and future innovations with technology," Gaitan says. "We recognize our future workforce needs to be prepared to compete in the 21st century in a global economy. We need to support innovation among young people to continue providing the technology and services that we do."