Updated: May 6, 2014 at 7:08 am
Ignoring slight nausea, Deborah Pfotzer, a high school English teacher from Colonial School District in New Castle, Del., took a deep breath, grabbed the controls and flew over the Grand Canyon Monday.
"Wow, this is fun," she said, whooping.
And seconds later, this: "Oh, no! We're crashing!"
She and her co-pilot reacted quickly and were able to steady the F-35 fighter jet.
"We saved it. Whew."
Pfotzer wasn't flying an actual warplane. She was in the flight simulation laboratory at Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy, a magnet middle school in Colorado Springs School District 11 that focuses on space and aeronautics.
But the mock setup sure felt real.
"It's a little scary at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's not too bad," she said.
The newly completed $300,000 lab that mimics flight with realistic sights, sounds and action is just one of the cool high-tech educational gadgets that helped Colorado Springs School District 11 earn recognition as one of the top school districts for digital advancement.
D-11 recently placed second in the nation on the 10th annual Digital School District Survey, up from seventh last school year. The award is sponsored by the Center for Digital Education and the National School Boards Association.
The distinction brought Pfotzer and about 60 other educators from around the country to town Monday and Tuesday to experience first-hand what D-11 is doing.
The educators are touring 13 of D-11's 60 schools, to learn how teachers are personalizing learning by using technology such as interactive devices, educational computer programs, online classes, robotics, a district television station and other programs.
"We wanted to see it in action because many schools are going this way - helping students learn with more hands-on instruction and letting them get behind the wheel, so to speak," Pfotzer said. "Teachers are no longer the drivers, we're just the co-pilots."
D-11, the area's largest school district with about 28,000 students, is one of three sites educators are visiting. The other districts are in Arizona and Minnesota.
For the past five years, D-11 has ranked among the top 10 districts on the survey, which judges some 200 points, said Robert Curran, assistant superintendent and chief information officer.
"You can't just say it, you have to prove what you've done," he said.
A combination of factors pushed D-11 up this school year, Curran said.
The district streams board meetings live on its website, rolled out new iPhone applications for schools to inform the community of lockdowns and other information, and completed a network upgrade to enable students to bring their own wireless devices to school.
That means students can get assignments, do research and even post their homework electronically, on their smartphones, tablets or laptops or school-owned devices, Curran said.
D-11's technology focus started in the early 2000s, when it installed fiber optic cable to build a wireless infrastructure in every building, and has been growing steadily since, Curran said.
Grant money has helped. Last year, the district received $10 million from the Federal Communication Commission's e-rate program, which allowed it to increase Internet bandwidth so that students could bring their own devices to school.
In 2012, D-11 Superintendent Nicholas Gledich was named one of the nation's top Tech Savvy Superintendents by eSchoolMedia.
Gledich has said he believes technology is not the end result but a tool that allows personalized learning like never before.
This is the fourth flight lab STEMulation Learning Systems, based in Minnesota, has built at a school, said Michael Pohl, president. Not only can students calculate principles such as lift and drag in the classroom, they then can then experience them, he said.
Beyond math and science, students learn teamwork, problem-solving and other skills in the lab.
"When they are exposed to this type of setting in middle school, they gain self-confidence in their ability to communicate," Pohl said.
The awesomeness factor rated high among the guest educators.
"Introducing technology like this is interesting because we're trying to prepare students for their lives, and they have the possibility of at least experiencing things," said Hugh Faulkner, an administrator with Kent School District in Kent, Wash.
"I didn't have that opportunity when I was in school."