sealPurdue Education Briefs

January 1997

Pupils improve writing with college student 'E-pals'

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A copy of the article, "Developing Electronic Mail Education: A School-University Collaboration," is available from Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2096.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University education project that uses electronic mail could become a national model for helping youngsters improve their writing skills by corresponding with adults.

Professor Susan Britsch and six graduate students in an advanced literacy seminar collaborated with Ron Berkson, a third-grade classroom teacher, and his 32 pupils 2,000 miles away in Northern California, using e-mail to help the children write more fluently.

"We decided to let the children's interests motivate the subjects for e-mail dialogue," says Britsch, assistant professor of literacy and language education. "We expanded on those interests, so that based on our analysis of what they wrote, we could help the students take their writing to another level."

At first, the third-graders e-mailed the Purdue graduate students telling generally about family and friends. As the children became more comfortable with the electronic exchanges, they began delving into other topics, and the graduate students asked questions to stimulate the children's thinking and to do further research. For example, one boy who owned a trampoline began e-mailing Britsch about trampolines, asking if she knew how they were built. Britsch e-mailed back and asked him the same question. Eventually, Britsch and the child exchanged various e-mails on the tension of cords and how to reassemble a trampoline if it's moved.

"We tried to avoid purely yes/no or listing answers to the children's questions," Britsch says. "We wanted them to do their own hypothesizing."

The children and the Purdue graduate students corresponded on such other topics as why leaves change color, the difference between mastodons and elephants, and why turkeys and geese don't get along. One boy's e-mails with Britsch added up to a 25-chapter fictional narrative with dialogue, plot, characters and an ending, Britsch says. The adults and children took turns acting as writer and audience.

There are a few similar projects around the country in which youngsters e-mail their peers, and some undergraduate students correspond electronically with children as part of teacher training, Britsch says. But the novelty of the Purdue project is that the graduate students were able to guide the children's writing and "up the ante," she says.

"The children may not have pushed themselves to higher levels of writing achievement if they had corresponded with people their own age," Britsch says. "The adults encouraged their research and inquiry."

Britsch says the third-graders liked the e-mail because it works faster than "snail mail," or sending paper letters. As a result, the children corresponded weekly with their "E-pals." Also, as the pupils became more comfortable and familiar with the adults, they communicated not only information but also feelings, she says.

"The children talked about how their college E-pals became their best friends," Britsch says. "The kids really recognized how a relationship can be built using language."

The project is in its second year. Britsch, Berkson and two Purdue School of Education graduate students, Priya Mathew Johnson and Rebecca Helm-Hill, presented results from the first year at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English.

CONTACTS: Britsch, (765) 494-5893; e-mail,

Berkson, (707) 421-4195; e-mail,

Schools seek special education teachers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- College graduates with degrees in special education can fill a special niche that often goes empty in today's schools.

"There always are vacancies in special education," says Nita G. Mason, director of placement, advising and recruiting in the Purdue University School of Education.

Margo Mastropieri, professor of special education at Purdue, says about 25,000 special education positions in K-12 each year are vacant or filled by teachers who are not fully certified in special education. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that for 1992-93, the most recent year for which it had figures, there were about 8,600 new bachelor's-degree graduates in special education nationwide -- not nearly enough, says Margie Crutchfield, information specialist with the National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education.

In 1995-96, Purdue graduated approximately 55 students with either a bachelor's degree in special education or with a bachelor's degree in another field of education and a minor in special education.

Nationally, starting salaries for bachelor's-degree graduates in special education average $21,923, while someone with a master's degree and no experience in special education can start at $23,956. Despite the large demand for these teachers, Mason says, the starting salaries are the same as for those in other teaching areas because teacher unions and school districts set the scale.

When a school can't find someone specifically trained in special education, it can hire people with limited licenses, Mason says. A limited license permits a teacher with expertise in another area, such as elementary education, to teach special education for a limited time.

Mastropieri says approximately 12 percent of all students ages 6-21 have a disability classified from mild to severe. Mild encompasses those with specific learning disabilities; severe includes children with physical disabilities as well as those who are developmentally delayed. Special education students also may be those with sensory disabilities, such as blindness or deafness.

"Special education teachers need to be familiar with characteristics of these students, be capable of adapting instruction for students with disabilities, and be able to manage classroom behavior of such students," Mastropieri says.

CONTACTS: Mason, (765) 494-7962; e-mail,; School of Education placement Web site,

Mastropieri, (765) 494-7346; e-mail,

Crutchfield, (800) 641-7824

Making the simple difficult is object of Rube Goldberg Contest

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Video and photographs of past contests are available. Journalists will not be allowed on the stage with the machines during the competition, but they are welcome on stage before and after the contest. Purdue will provide video and photo pool coverage and direct audio and video feeds. Video b-roll, photos and a news release will be available the afternoon of the event. Satellite assistance is available. A color photo from the 1996 contest is available from Purdue News Service or download here. If you have questions, call Amanda Siegfried, Purdue News Service, (765) 494-4709; e-mail,

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- It's not always easy to get a computer to do what you want it to, but Purdue University students will make the task even more difficult at the 15th annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest on Feb. 8.

Several teams of Purdue students are building the most complicated and often humorous machines to load a CD into a computer and run a program, or into a CD player and play music. The contest, free and open to the public, begins at 11:30 a.m. in Purdue's Elliott Hall of Music.

The winner of the Purdue contest goes on to represent the university at the National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, to be held at Purdue on March 29.

The event honors the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks.

Teams expecting to compete include the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, a joint team of the Society of Women Engineers and Society of Physics Students, Purdue residence halls and contest sponsor Theta Tau, a professional engineering fraternity.

The contest is organized by student members of the Purdue chapter of Theta Tau, with support from industrial sponsor General Electric.

The competitors are challenged to build a contraption that uses at least 20 steps to load a CD into a CD player or computer and play it or run a program. Each machine must run, be reset and run again in nine minutes. Machines also will be judged and awarded points based on the creative use of materials and use of related themes.

In addition to cash prizes for the top three teams, a "People's Choice" award will be given to the team whose machine gets the most votes from audience members.

Student organizers of the contest maintain a World Wide Web page at

CONTACT: Daniel Colpi, contest chairman, (765) 743-2461; e-mail,

Liberal arts grads in demand; major doesn't matter

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Liberal arts majors are finding liberal opportunities in the job market, both in the variety and number of employers seeking them.

"Already this year, 75 employers have been on campus looking for liberal arts majors," says Sylvia Howell, coordinator for placement in the School of Liberal Arts at Purdue University. "That's an increase of about 35 percent over two years ago."

Companies looking to hire liberal arts majors include Andersen Consulting, IBM and Cargill.

Howell says it's always been a myth that liberal arts students can't get jobs. Even so, more employers are interested in these students today, even for jobs of a technical nature.

"Employers find that liberal arts students have an ability to learn, they communicate well, they have decision-making skills and do well in many areas," Howell says. "They often find they can get better results hiring a liberal arts major than someone with only a technical background."

She says there is no specific area of liberal arts study that is attracting all the attention. "There is no magic major," she says. "You don't get a job just because of the major you have. In every major, there are students who get jobs and those who don't."

Because many liberal arts graduates work in social service fields, average starting salaries for Purdue liberal arts majors are in the low- to mid-$20,000s. However, Howell says that results from what the students choose: "We have salaries all over the map. What you earn depends on what you do, for whom, where."

CONTACT: Howell, (765) 494-5097; e-mail,

Compiled by Ellen Rantz, (765) 494-2073; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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