Noted Author Will Highlight One School/One Book Program in Kent County Public Schools

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Wil Haygood – author of Tigerland: 1968-1969

Wil Haygood’s new book Tigerland: 1968-1969: A City Divided, A Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing, which will be released September 15 but is already receiving glowing reviews, will be the centerpiece of a Kent County Public Schools program this fall. The program—One School/One Book—seeks to provide every student in grades 8 through 12 with a personal copy to read in advance of meeting with the author. Haygood, who finished the book as a writing fellow at Washington College, will participate in Meet the Author events at the Kent County middle and high school on November 14th, meeting with both students and staff. He will also participate in an event that evening open to the entire community.

The book is especially relevant and inspirational for secondary school students, because it tells the true story of a segregated black high school in Columbus, Ohio, during the heights of the 1960’s civil rights movement. Against all odds, in a single year the school produced state championship teams (the Tigers) in both basketball and baseball as well as a highly acclaimed debate team. The book describes that effort in exciting detail, including profiling the coaches, teachers, and school principal who helped make it possible and Eddie “Rat” Ratleff, the star of both winning teams, who would go on to play for the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team.

Haygood is a cultural historian and an award-winning author of seven nonfiction books, including a book that led to the 2013 film The Butler (which he co-produced) about Eugene Allen, the African American butler who served eight U.S. Presidents (from Truman to Reagan) in the White House. Haygood, who grew up in Columbus and remembers watching the events chronicled in Tigerland, has said he is excited to participate in the One School/One Book program here, because he believes there are parallels between Kent County and the story told in the book.

According to KCPS Superintendent Karen Couch, student and community involvement intensify when a whole school reads a book together. Tigerland’s publisher has agreed to make the book available for half price for this program. The school system is seeking donations to raise $10,000 to ensure every child in the relevant grades and each of their teachers receives a copy of the book. Donations can be made to the Kent County Public Schools Special Projects Fund, c/o Chesapeake Charities, 101 Log Canoe Circle, Suite O, Stevensville, MD 21666, or on-line at www.chesapeakecharities.org/fund/kent-county-public-schools-special-projects/.

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The Future of Healthcare: Medical Marijuana Dispensary Opens in Centreville

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The leading edge of a quiet revolution in healthcare reached the Eastern Shore on Valentine’s Day. That’s when Ash + Ember, a licensed medical marijuana dispensary, opened its doors. The owners of the facility—sisters Ashley and Paige Colen—say they are seeing lots of early demand. The dispensary is located at 202 Coursevall Drive #108 in Centreville.  Visit their website here. 

Maryland is now one of 29 states (plus Washington DC) that provide legal access to hemp and marijuana derivatives to treat medical problems such as pain, nausea, depression, sleeping disorders, epilepsy, and other health issues. The medical marijuana movement, however, is increasingly global. Australia, Argentina, Canada, Germany, Israel and many other countries already provide similar access. The process in Maryland requires prospective patients to get a doctor’s recommendation, then register with state authorities and receive a specialized ID card, and then to work with a licensed dispensary to identify the particular formulation and mode of delivery that best meets their needs.

Ash + Ember offers to help would-be patients with the registration process and with finding a doctor who will recommend medical marijuana therapy, as well as with finding a formulation that best suits each patient. Since the dispensary is limited to suppliers in Maryland (federal regulations make it illegal to ship marijuana across state lines), it’s stock is fairly limited at present, but the local grower and processor industry is scaling up fast and the Colen sisters expect a much wider selection in coming weeks and months. For now, they accept cash only but expect to accept credit cards in the near future and to offer home delivery of their products.They can also be reached at 443-262-8045 and are open 10am-7pm weekdays and 10am-6pm weekends.

One of the barriers to full realization of the medical and health benefits of cannabinoids—the generic term for the active ingredients in hemp and marijuana plants—is widespread ignorance about them among both patients and doctors. Many people associate marijuana with the underground growing and smoking of “weed” to get high—a practice still illegal in most states. An informal survey suggests that many doctors in private practice on the eastern shore still won’t have anything to do with medical marijuana.

But medical cannabinoids don’t have much to do with getting high. Medical scientists have now identified as many as 80 different cannabinoids, most of which produce no buzz or high at all. Indeed of the 8 cannabinoids commonly found in the now bewildering array of commercial medical marijuana products, only one—THC—interacts with receptors in the brain to produce that kind of psychotropic effect. The other most common form—CBD, the mainstay of most medical/therapeutic uses—has no psychotropic effect at all and acts on receptors that are part of the body’s own cannabinoid system. That system, found in nearly all cells, produces cannabinoids to help stabilize the body’s internal processes.

Moreover, smoking marijuana is probably the least common form of administration. Instead, the active ingredients are extracted from the plant by solvents and used as oils (directly on the skin, or ingested in capsules or food, or vaporized and inhaled) or alcohol-based tinctures (delivered as drops under the tongue). Extraction allows manufacturers both to concentrate the active ingredients and also to more precisely control concentrations and purity. And the variety of ways of using medical marijuana gives patients more control as well. Inhaling a vapor has an almost immediate effect, but may be too strong for some circumstances or not a comfortable mode of use for some. Ingesting the drug means a much slower but longer-lasting effect (for controlling pain at work, for example). Putting a drop or two under your tongue also gives immediate effect, but the concentrations in tinctures are typically lower.

Clinical research on specific cannabinoids and their impact on health conditions is still in the early stages—in large part because the federal government had made it very difficult to get permission to do such research. But last year a randomized clinical trial found that high-CBD extracts helped markedly to control epileptic seizures in children. Another study in a mouse model of autism showed that CBD has promise as a treatment there as well. Canadian studies have provided evidence that cannabinoids can help with post-traumatic stress disorder, chemotherapy-induced nausea, sleeping disorders, and arthritic pain. More research is coming.

Arguably one of the most important potential impacts of medical marijuana is likely to be easing the opioid epidemic, the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. If pain can be treated with non-addictive cannabinoids, why use opiods—and enrich the pharma companies that make them—in the first place? Indeed, research studies have reported fewer opioid deaths and reduced opioid use in states where medical marijuana is available. That in itself would be a major benefit of widespread adoption of medical cannabinoids. And if cannabinoids can be used to help wean people already addicted from opioids, as some research suggests, even better.

Of course, medical marijuana is not the only revolution going on—more and more states are legalizing recreational marijuana as well, and the dominant brands for recreational use usually include quite a bit of THC. One genuine concern about recreational marijuana is its potential impact on adolescents: cannabinoids—especially THC—can have a significant impact on the development of adolescent brains. But the more tightly controlled distribution channels for medical marijuana seem far less likely to “leak” into adolescent culture, as well as focusing more heavily on CBD.

Another concern is work-related drug tests: will medical marijuana use show up on these tests and cause someone to lose a job? As it turns out, the tests that follow a federal standard are specific to THC, so using a low-THC/high CBD formulation to control pain should not trigger a positive test.

Another barrier to use is simply social: we’re not yet to the stage where people talk openly about their medical marijuana use. But if you have medical concerns that are not well met by conventional medicines, or want to avoid opioid use or anti-depressants with bad side effects, you might want to look into what’s available—and legal—in medical marijuana, now conveniently at hand on the eastern shore.

21st Century Learning: The Future of Education in Kent County, Part II by Al Hammond

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“Myki Ruby Bernard, a middle school student, is soldering her Code Club project—part of the hands-on approach to digital technology used in Kent County public schools”. Photo credit Laura Jacob.

21st Century Learning: The Future of Education in Kent County, Part II

Talk to parents of students enrolled in Kent County public schools, and a common question is: What does my child do all day? In fact, students don’t spend the whole day looking at screens—a frequently expressed concern. But they do have chromebooks (simplified laptops), tablets, or laptops accessible to them throughout the school day, and can take them home from 6th grade on. The schools’ digital platform is accessible wherever there is an internet connection, and high school teachers frequently assign course segments or practice sessions for students to do at home or over weekends.

Beyond the Discovery Education content, the Google education apps, and a set of administrative and teacher support tools (see Part I), Kent County schools don’t mandate specific digital tools or lesson plans. Teachers choose those they want to use and what they think works best with their students. Moreover, the innovation ferment in the Ed Tech sectors and in schools with digital platforms across the country means that there are new tools and creative new lesson plans that use those tools introduced every year. The result is continual experimentation, with teachers in Kent County sharing ideas and discoveries with each other. (See Box at end of article, A Short Guide to Digital Learning Tools)

Beyond specific tools, what counts is how a teacher uses them to enhance student involvement and learning. Here is what this reporter observed in three specific 50-minute classes last week.

3rd Grade math, Kelley Melvin. The focus in 3rd grade, Kelley tells me, is really mastering multiplication, both memorizing the multiplication tables and being able to apply them in many different contexts. Today’s class will use three different digital tools—a whole class exercise at their desks; then one where students are on their feet and moving around the room, working in teams; then individual exercises at their desks again.

“Gallery Walk” tool helps teams of students learn basic math. Photo credit Kelley Melvin

The class starts with a Kahoot session reviewing the concept of area. Every child enters their secret game pin on their tablet, which keeps their answers private from other students. The video screen shows a rectangle, with the area and the length given, and asks, what is the missing width. Kelley reminds the class of the formula for area, length times width, and says “think before you click”. Then she starts the clock, giving students 30 seconds to select the right answer on their tablet, which shows four color-coded choices. Music plays while students ponder. And the video screen tabulates responses (while keeping individual answers anonymous). Everyone gets this one right. Cheers break out.

Then a new exercise, with more complicated geometry. Then another. Kelley reviews the formula for area again. Then more exercises, nearly a dozen over a span of about 15 minutes. The Kahoot software keeps track of each student’s answer to each exercise, so that Kelley can see where any individual student is having trouble. To see Kahoot in action, watch this short video.

The class then switches to an activity called Gallery Walk, where pre-assigned teams of 3 students gather at stations around the room to complete exercises that are posted under a plastic sheet. One child has a marker and writes out the answers on the plastic sheet. A second child then uses his or her tablet to take a photo of the answer and submits it digitally. The third then erases the answer, clearing the slate for the next team. (See photos) The teams are working under a time limit, and when the bell rings, they move onto the next station and a new exercise. The teams also rotate roles, so everyone gets chances to take and submit the photo of the result—which they think is cool, and makes the whole exercise fun. Meanwhile, the tool has stored each team’s work, so that Kelley can review it later (often at home), make comments on it, and send it back to students—all digitally.

“Gallery Walk” Students work as team on a question and write their answer on the erasable plastic sheet Photo credit Kelley Melvin

Finally, students use a tool called Splash Math—one of their favorites—to do individual arithmetic exercises by hand at their desks, before entering their answer on the tablet. Each student’s exercises are skill-adjusted to that student, and the tool both tracks each student’s answers (so Kelley or teaching aids that circulate can see where a student is having problems and help) and won’t let the student move on until they have mastered that skill. The tool also awards digital “coins” for each right answer, which the kids can use to “buy” digital fish for their private aquarium—an incentive system that keeps kids motivated.

6th grade science, Amelia Markosian. Amelia is teaching a segment on rocks—rock types, their distinctive properties, how they are formed, where they are found. As the students come into the room, a tool called Science Sizzler is on the video screen with questions on a previously assigned article about igneous rocks. Students sit at their desk, turn on their tablets, and start work on answering the questions, submitting their answers on Google Classroom. When the class formally starts, Amelia asks if they have any questions about igneous rocks, and they do; a short discussion ensues. Science Sizzler is in effect a daily warm-up exercise with new questions every day to get the students engaged in the subject matter and prompt an opening discussion, where the teacher can answer questions and show pictures or hold up examples (in this case of rocks).

Then Amelia introduces a Radical Rocky Recognition Mission—her name for a Google Classroom interactive lab on rock types, introduced with a music video featuring a song about the rock cycle. The lab is designed both to impart information, but also to teach critical thinking skills, and it gives feedback, so that students end up with a score for the lab. The students get involved in the lab, on their tablets—they’re doing the work, leaving Amelia free to circulate and help individually with students. Every student works at their own speed—some complete the lab early and share their scores with the teacher, then go on to other things.

When everyone has finished the lab, Amelia opens another group discussion by asking each student to name their favorite type of rock, and say why they chose it. Some of the answers are amusing, provoking laughter. Others prompt students to make follow-on comments. Amelia uses the discussion to reinforce some of the lessons from the lab. The discussion is still going strong—and no one seems bored—when the bell rings.

12th grade Advanced Placement Psychology, Caron Saunders. Today’s class is small because a number of students are out with the flu. The students carry laptops and are very savvy about digital tools. The class is preparing for the Advanced Placement exam toward the end of school that will give those who pass it credits that enable them to skip introductory college classes. Today’s class is mostly review of psychology concepts and the specialized vocabulary used to name and describe them. Caron tells them to start a tool called quizlet.live, a kind of digital flashcards. It gives the students, working in teams, a definition and asks them to select the matching vocabulary term. The team approach forces collaboration. If the team picks the wrong answer, the tool gives them immediate feedback. Meanwhile, Caron can circulate and observe or reinforce understanding.

The class then moves on to individualized flashcards, and the tool adjusts the definitions for each student to focus on areas where he or she is weak (based on their prior use of the tool). It starts with multiple choice, but then moves to asking students to write out definitions from scratch. Caron can circulate, or prepare another lesson on her tablet, or set up a homework assignment.

Caron says that she also often uses Ed Puzzle, a video that stops and asks the students to answer a question before it continues, and which can be used by a group or by individual students or even when the student is at home (for weekend review or for students that are out ill). She also uses a tool called Noodle to give multiple choice tests, both because it gives student instant feedback (right or wrong)—promoting learning—and also, for wrong answers, gives the student a second chance at the question (for which Caron awards a correct answer half credit).

As the bell rings, Caron assigns homework for which the students will use a tool called Amanda that provides on-line lectures by leading high school psychology teachers.

What’s common to all of these classes is that none of the teachers are lecturing. The digital tools provide content (sometimes organized by the teacher in advance and often automatically customized to the student’s attainment level), and the students are actively involved in learning—absorbing or researching content, practicing skills, collaborating with other students. Meanwhile the digital platform remembers and stores everything—no paper shuffling here. Teachers, freed from both lecturing and many administrative tasks, focus on helping individual students, re-inforcing key learning, guiding classroom discussions—as well as on creating or finding lesson plans that will engage their students.

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A Short Guide to Digital Learning Tools

Some tools are widely used in Kent County public schools, because teachers find that they work. They are a far cry from textbooks, homework sheets, calculators, and flashcards (although there are digital flashcards) The short descriptions below—hardly a complete list—give some sense of what life in school is like these days:

  • Clever. Home base for all the tools that students use. It works like a tablet on the web—a student logs on and clicks on the app or tool, including Google apps such as email and Microsoft apps such as Office 365 for writing documents or creating presentations.
  • Boards. These are similar to a website, can display text, photos, videos, and are easy for even elementary school students to create. Teachers use them to send assignments to students, and students use them to prepare their work and send it back to the teacher. For example, if a teacher assigned a lesson about the different categories of living things, each student would pick an example that interests them and research the topic further. A student intrigued by crocodiles might investigate them as an example of reptiles, for example, and build their own board with facts, pictures, and other things he or she has learned about where crocodiles live, what they eat, etc. The students then share the board with other students in their study group, who comment and help the student improve it. When it’s ready, the student uploads it to the teacher, who can share it the whole class for discussion.
  • Kahoot. An informal assessment tool that gauges class learning and also helps to review lessons, but which feels like a game show, with competition, lively music, and rewards. It’s very interactive and engaging, but gives the class as a whole (and each student privately) a clear sense of whether they are mastering the content. Some teachers let students create their own review questions and manage a Kahoot for the class.
  • Virtual Field Trips. Let’s a teacher take the class on a multi-media “trip” to anywhere in the world to see and learn about local conditions or unique artwork.
  • Gizmo. An interactive tool used in grades 3-9 to simulate mathematics concepts or run virtual science experiments. It allows students to vary the numbers or the conditions to see how things change and to make graphs.
  • Frontrow. A tool that gives a student feedback on areas where they are weak in mathematics or English and then provides practice exercises targeted to overcome those weaknesses.
  • Mondo guided reading. This tools helps early grade students to learn new words, to speak them correctly, and to master spoken and written language.

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21st Century Learning: The Future of Education in Kent County, Part I –by Al Hammond

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You still hear people in Kent County say “Our public schools are so awful!” Some people probably view the busing fiasco last fall or the recent, painful consolidation of elementary schools (shrinking from five to three) as further evidence of decline, even though consolidation is likely to improve educational quality. But what seems clear is that few if any of the critics have recently visited a school and observed a classroom in action, or they might have noticed that a remarkable transformation is underway.

Guided by Superintendent Dr. Karen Couch, the schools are now in the fourth year of transitioning to an entirely new educational model—one that treats each child as unique and prepares them for life and work in the 21st century far more effectively than traditional methods. The effort is positioning Kent County schools to become a leader in what is now a nationwide movement toward the use of digital learning platforms.

The old model of education is sometimes described as a teacher on one end of a log and a student on the other—or, for most of us, a teacher at the blackboard and students taking notes. In that model, it was easy for students to get bored and stop paying attention, or for slow students to get left behind. So a visit to Kent County public schools might be a bit dis-orienting at first, as if you had stumbled into a different century. Students start having “hands-on” experiences in pre-kindergarten (see video here)  They are issued simplified laptops in kindergarten, start learning to “code” (write software for computers), and to understand how the internet works in 2nd grade, graduate to tablets and eventually full laptops in higher grades, and work with interactive digital tools throughout their education. Textbooks have largely disappeared—content comes in digital form, adjusted to the capabilities and needs of each individual student, and includes videos and soon virtual reality experiences that can illustrate the workings of a beating heart or how galaxies form.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the digital tools is their ability to monitor and test each student’s progress in learning in real time—making it virtually impossible for any student to just drift along. The digital platform also notices when a student has difficulty in a particular math activity or a weakness in vocabulary and can immediately reinforce the student’s learning in that area. It also keeps the teacher aware of each student’s progress, and keeps records. The digital platform supports a wide range of interactive resources—math visualizations, digital maps, competitions—that enhance learning and animate class discussions. A typical class might include a group learning activity (watching and responding to a video), an exercise conducted in a team of three or four students competing with other teams, and an individual activity where each student works alone on material appropriate to their learning level. Lesson reviews might take the form of a quiz show game, where students compete to choose the right answer. Homework assignments are on-line, and students use vetted on-line resources to research assigned topics and create and upload portfolios of their work, usually after collaborating on it with other students. A teacher can also take a class on a virtual field trip to the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, or major art museums anywhere in the world—quite something for students who have never been off the Eastern Shore. The impact of all this on students is significant: boredom seems largely banished. Teachers report that the digital learning experience engages students like nothing they have ever seen.

What’s the Evidence that Kent County Schools are Getting Better?

Critics of the school system point out that Kent County student scores on statewide achievement tests haven’t yet markedly improved.  With a few exceptions (algebra, for example), they’re correct. But it’s also true that the school system is still in the early years of a transition to a dramatically different educational model—it will take another 8 years before graduating seniors will have used the digital platform throughout their school experience.

Another factor is the small size of the County’s student population—so even a few bad scores drag down the averages—combined with the unusual level of economic diversity in the county’s population. A recent statewide survey found that 40 percent of Kent County households have incomes below the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) level—a more accurate gauge of economic constraints than federal poverty levels—which is the second highest percentage of constrained households on the Eastern Shore. In addition, Kent County receives a relatively small amount of state education aid per student—a result of the county’s relatively high amount of income and real property wealth (all those waterfront estates) and the way that is reflected in the state funding formula.

Kent County school officials believe that tests scores will improve. They also point to the fact that teachers from outside the county, attracted by the digital platform, are increasingly applying for any vacancies—the Kent County public schools are becoming a magnet for educational talent, which will help under any educational model. Still another assessment comes from the founder of LearnLaunch in Boston—the country’s leading “Ed-Tech” accelerator—who told this reporter that “the Kent County schools are clearly among the top 10% of districts in the US in their adoption and use of these new educational tools.” In fact, Kent County is the lead county in Maryland in the use of a digital educational platform; Baltimore County has recently decided to begin a similar transition. Furthermore, the County’s recent acquisition of its own fiber network and its plans to ensure near-universal internet access to households with students means that students can take advantage of the digital platform and its growing universe of content evenings and weekends too.

But both administrators and teachers in the school system say that the best—and for now, the only way—to really gauge the difference is to see the new educational model in action: to sit in a classroom and watch how students are engaged in learning.  Many parents, wondering if and how this new educational model really works and what their child does all day, would probably like to do just that—but don’t have the opportunity. So this reporter has visited and observed three classrooms in action—3rd grade math, 6th grade science, and 12th grade Advanced Placement psychology—and will in a second article offer his observations, together with videos of classrooms in action.

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But beyond the technology, what is really going on is an educational process that is far more student-centered than anything most adults have experienced. In an advanced math lesson, each student proceeds at their own pace, checking that they have understood a concept before moving on to the next material. The teacher, freed from lecturing, can monitor each student’s progress and intervene when a student seems stuck. Imagine a 3rd grade class doing a social studies lesson, all reading the same material, but with the vocabulary adjusted to fit the reading level of each individual student—which in Kent County can mean, as one teacher explained, “some kids who can barely read and others reading at 8th-grade level, but all able to engage and discuss the lesson together.”  The technology, in effect, helps bridge learning gaps, so slower students are neither left behind nor slow down the entire class.  The technology also allows the teacher to respond to different areas of interest within a class—“six different videos going at once, or the ability to project a student’s just-submitted portfolio onto the screen so the whole class can discuss it.” One teacher said “I was dubious and a bit intimidated at first.  Now I wouldn’t want to teach without my tablet and the digital platform—it makes things so much easier, and the kids learn better.”

How did this come about? It began with the recruitment of a visionary educator—Dr. Couch—who had begun to use digital tools in her previous assignment and had seen their impact. When she arrived in Kent County, the Governor’s office was offering an educational innovation grant—large enough to finance the equipment, software tools, and services needed to start a digital makeoverhere. So Dr. Couch and her team applied and won. The transformation has also involved strong support from the School Board and the County Commissioners, who have supported Dr. Couch’s plans with additional budget.

A second factor depended on engaging and empowering teachers. Dr. Couch recruited 22 teachers who were interested in the new educational model and willing to become part of a “digital leader corps” to be trained as the initial users of the digital platform. It involved a three-year commitment by those teachers, with 15 days of off-site training as well as near constant mentoring by phone and email from an expert coach. Some of that initial corps were understandably a bit uncertain whether the extra effort would be worth it.  Within a year, however, the doubts disappeared: the teacher corps has become both advocates of the digital tools and a resource for other teachers, helping to spread expertise through the system. Teachers especially appreciate the intensive coaching, and say that even on a Sunday evening, struggling to prepare digital materials for class the next day, they could email their coach and get immediate help. A new corps—eight more teachers—entered the training process this school year. In two more years, when the current corps finishes their training, the majority of the district’s teachers will be highly skilled in the use of the digital platform and its interactive tools.

A third factor is the rise of what is now called the Ed Tech revolution—hundreds of companies developing digital tools and content that facilitate improved, individualized learning. One of the leaders in this new industry—and the source of the primary digital content for Kent County schools—is Discovery Education. Created in 2009 as a division of the Discovery Channel, the company began by selling classroom videotapes drawn from their successful nature and science cable channel. But they soon realized that kids interact with digital content in a different way than they do with books or simple video tapes. So they began to create a digital platform for schools and a unique kind of digital content: for social studies classes, material with vocabulary that could be adjusted to a child’s current reading level; for science and math classes, interactive content that kids found more engaging and helped them to visualize or understand concepts better.  The result is what are now digital “textbooks” spanning a wide range of content for k-12 classes and designed to enable students to learn in the way that suits them best. The Discovery educational materials can even read themselves out loud for students who can’t yet read, or provide content in another language such as Spanish for students still learning English. The Kent County digital educational platform also includes Google’s educational apps that include unlimited digital storage, Google Expeditions (the virtual fieldtrips), Google Cardboard (virtual reality tools), and Google Classroom, which tracks kids’ progress and handles administrative records for teachers, enabling almost paperless schools.

Discovery Education also provides the intensive off-site training for teachers as well as the coaches that help teachers with day-to-day use of the materials and tools. Teachers seem to love the tutorial sessions and they say that the company introduces them to a wide range of available tools (many new ones crop up every year), not just those made by Discovery Education. As a result, Discovery Education has become a clear leader in fostering the digital transformation of education—their content is now used in half of the k-12 classrooms in the U.S. and by some 50 million students overseas in more than 50 other countries. Tens of thousands of teachers across the U.S. are using these tools to prepare digital lesson plans, sharing them with each other online, and rating their effectiveness. Teachers in Kent County usually create their own digital lesson plans, but they can also—and do—choose from the best of those already on-line.

The aim of Kent County public school’s new education model is not only to teach traditional subjects—English, math, science, social studies—more effectively, but also to teach critical skills that will be needed in the 21st century workforce. These include skills in teamwork and collaboration, as well as the technical ability to use and program smart digital devices and interactive digital content (See Box below: Hands-On Training in IT Skills) and the intellectual ability to evaluate ideas and content critically. Such skills –both the teamwork and critical thinking skills, as well as the technical skills—are likely to become more and more essential for getting and keeping a job, especially as robots and artificial intelligence invades the workplace.  For that reason, there is now a renewed focus on teaching such skills across the U.S. as well as internationally. In Maryland alone there are currently more than 100,000 unfilled positions in such areas as cybersecurity, computer system maintenance, or IT application development. So Kent County’s 21st century approach to education is clearly going to be advantageous for the students, as well as for local businesses.

But the stakes go beyond equipping today’s students. Already the most valuable U.S. companies are so-called “platform businesses” that build and maintain vast IT-based networks connecting billions of users—think Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Uber. These companies are very profitable, highly efficient, and increasingly global in their reach. Many business analysts now believe that such companies will dominate nearly every sector of the economy. Although the U.S. now leads in digital education and Ed-Tech tool development, China is accelerating its investment in these areas as well, and it too has platform businesses with global ambitions.  So training an IT-savvy workforce is likely to be important for the future of U.S. economic competitiveness.

For Kent County, with its coming new high-speed internet infrastructure and a new industrial park in progress that hopes to attract sophisticated businesses and new residents, a high-quality public school system attuned to the skills that today’s job market increasingly needs is an essential requirement. Fortunately, that seems well on the way to becoming a reality.

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Hands On Training in IT Skills

Kent County public schools are unique in expecting students to complete both a college-prep curriculum and a Career Technical Training (CTE) curriculum focused on practical skills, which more than 80 percent of students complete. Now the latter is being expanded to include information technologies. The schools already teach coding (programming digital devices) because, as Dr. Laura Jacob—the new head of technology for the school system—says, “programming is the next literacy.” Dr. Jacob has only been here since the summer, but already she serves on a committee that is establishing Maryland K-12 computer science standards. She also applied for and won a Google grant for Kent County (the only Maryland school district to win one) that is enabling 6th – 8th graders to learn more advanced programming and app development in bi-weekly after-school sessions. The students then work with local businesses to put those skills to practical use—micro-coding the controls for a fan at Dixon Valve was one of the first projects. A comparable program for high school students will focus on “ethical hacking”, helping organizations test their on-line security systems. These will be part of a new K-12 digital skills CTE curriculum that Jacob is organizing and that will culminate with an Advanced Placement computer science course for high school seniors.

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Photography by Laura Jacob

 

GigaBit County: An Update on the Kent County Fiber Network

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The optical fiber network spanning Kent County—which will enable gigabit (1000 megabit) internet access to every County facility and to any home or business that wants it—is nearly complete. Despite rumors to the contrary, the fiber buildout is on schedule and on budget, according to FTS President Adam Noll. In fact, virtually the only part of the backbone network that remains to be built are the fibers serving the towns of Chestertown and Rock Hall. Noll says that construction of Rock Hall will begin in the next 2 weeks, now that plans of the existing underground utilities have been found.

Meanwhile, the company hooking up individual homes and businesses to the fiber and providing high speed internet access, Think Big Networks, reports that it is already providing service to more than 100 customers, including Dixon Valve and La Motte—the County’s largest businesses—and has many more ready to install. Mark Wagner, CEO of Think Big, says that progress has been slower than he hoped, but that it is steady. He sees no reason that they can’t connect any Kent County residence.

The fiber installation in Chestertown has been delayed because Delmarva Power, which owns the above-ground power poles, has demanded a price that FTS considers way above market rate and refuses to pay. Delmarva Power can demand such fees because FTS is not a regulated carrier in the state of Maryland (it is in other states), but Noll says one solution is for FTS to apply for regulated status, which would guarantee access to the poles. Another possible solution is to use micro-trenching techniques to put the fiber underground. In any event, Noll says that Chestertown will soon get fiber too, one way or another.

One cause of the rumors—and a recent pause in the fiber buildout—was a management reorganization at FTS, which resulted in Noll becoming president and taking charge of day-to-day operations. But the buildout is not at risk; in fact, FTS’s prospects are much larger than Kent County and are best understood in terms of that larger context.

The Kent County fiber network is just the first of what FTS hopes will become a major business connecting rural counties—in Maryland and Virgina to start with. Central to that plan is the company’s planned fiber ring connecting a new undersea cable that comes ashore in Virginia Beach to the major internet hub in Ashburn, Virginia. The ring—one arm through Virginia and the other through Maryland’s Eastern Shore—would contain hundreds of fibers, enabling County governments, large internet data centers and other companies, and residential internet providers to access or provide high speed internet.

The new undersea cable connects Bilbao, Spain to Virginia Beach and provides an alternative to cables that go through New York City (and whose vulnerability was demonstrated by superstorm Sandy).  The cable is being built by Microsoft, Facebook, and the Spanish company Telefonica and will have the highest capacity of any undersea cable yet, capable of transmitting 16o terabits per second (roughly the same as 71 million high definition movies every second).  It is expected to begin operation in 2018, and its presence will transform the entire region, as well as underlie the business case for the FTS ring. The ring, in turn, will be the main revenue source for FTS, but it is what enables the County networks, where the financial return is slower.

For Kent County, says Noll, access via the FTS ring both to the internet hub at Ashburn and to Europe creates a huge opportunity to attract internet-based businesses and young, internet-savvy families.  And at least for now, Kent County is unique on the Eastern Shore in having that opportunity. FTS was negotiating a similar contract with Queen Anne’s County, but would face higher costs per foot of fiber installed (it’s a much larger county). Queen Anne was not willing to pay a higher price, and they additionally demanded that FTS provide a bond to guarantee completion. Noll says that it simply did not make business sense, and so FTS walked away; it will instead focus on building its larger ring and exploring opportunities in some Virginia counties.

In summary, FTS is a major internet infrastructure company that is currently building a high-speed fiber ring through Virginia and Maryland, that conveniently passes through Kent County.  Think Big is the local company that connects local businesses and residences to this high-speed fiber network.  This provides a wonderful opportunity for Kent County. The completed network may open the doors to economic development unlike any the county has experienced in living memory.

 

Telemedicine, Virtual Health Coaches, and Other Wonders: The Future of Health in Kent County, Part 1

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UM Shore Regional Health Center – Chestertown

Small rural hospitals are an endangered species everywhere in the U.S. In Kent County, an intense, citizen-led campaign to save the Chestertown hospital has made progress, but—contrary to recent press reports—the hospital’s fate is still uncertain. Shore Regional Health, part of the University of Maryland Medical  System that provides healthcare to 5 mid-shore counties and which owns and operates the Chestertown facility, has said it would like to maintain in-patient services in Chestertown after 2022, as part of a broader plan to upgrade healthcare on the Eastern Shore.  But doing so will be contingent on legislative or regulatory changes to establish a new reimbursement model for vulnerable rural populations. Whether such legislation is passed is likely to depend on recommendations in the upcoming report of the Maryland Rural Health Study, due this September.  Watch this space for an in-depth report when the recommendations are released.

But the future of the hospital—as a full in-patient facility or as a standalone medical facility with more limited services—is only one of the factors that are likely to shape healthcare in the county in coming years. Moreover, a just-released nationwide assessment of the quality of health—county by county within each state—finds that Kent County has lots of room for improvement. It ranks only 18th (out of 24 Maryland counties) in health outcomes, far behind Talbot (5th) and Queen Annes (7th), and only barely ahead of Caroline and Dorchester.

Healthcare is changing rapidly, driven by both economic pressures (healthcare expenditures make up nearly 20% of the U.S. economy, far above all other industrial countries) and by new technology.  Shore Health’s strategic plan for the Eastern Shore deals with both aspects, but focuses on improving access to care, while also implementing services that can help keep people out of hospitals. Here we profile some technologies and other innovations likely to impact our healthcare in one form or another in coming years, drawing on both local and national examples.

Transport. A big unmet need in Kent County, as in most rural areas, is transport to get people to care.  That could take the form of local transport—to see a doctor, then pick up medicines at a drugstore—or could mean emergency transport by van or helicopter to a distant hospital. One model for local transport could be a kind of “Uber for healthcare” service that would allow people without cars or who can’t safely drive to arrange pickup and transport when they need it with just a phone call or an app. Potentially, a similar service—private but subsidized, or run by a healthcare system or insurer—could also provide transport services to regional hospitals. Will any of these happen? Such services are being started or are under discussion in a few places already, but whether they happen here may depend on local initiatives and some state financing.

Telemedicine and Telehealth. Under the best of circumstances, however, it’s a hassle to drive across the bridge to consult a surgeon or a specialist not found on the Eastern Shore. Suppose instead you could talk to them over a video link from a local facility or, eventually, even from home? As it happens, Shore Regional Health is already gearing up for telemedicine services on the Eastern Shore, in part under a grant from the Maryland Health Care Commission. In April the first patient, a 22-month old boy brought to the emergency room at the Easton Hospital, was linked in minutes to a specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore—resulting in a diagnosis, immediate treatment, and referrals for followup. “Bridging the gap between the eastern and western shores is a wonderful opportunity that this technology has given us,” says Marc T. Zubrow, MD, vice president of telemedicine for the University of Maryland Medical System. “We will continue to enhance and expand the telemedicine capabilities [to] allow patients to receive the expert care they need without having to leave their local communities and support systems.”

Telehealth refers to broader, non-emergency services at a distance, linking patients at home to doctors or nurses via voice or video or data links. A patient with high blood pressure at risk for stroke, for example, might periodically measure his or her blood pressure at home with a device that transmits the data to be screened automatically by an algorithm and checked periodically by a nurse. Many wearable or in-home sensors capable of monitoring chronic health conditions are now available. Telehealth calls or data streams can also record physical exercise, help patients to improve their nutrition, help a mother decide whether her baby’s fever is high enough to need a doctor’s care, or address other health concerns. The savings in costs and peace of mind could be substantial, and sometimes life-saving.

In-home Care. Some health conditions call for personal contact by a nurse, physical therapist, or health coach. Increasingly, taking care to the patient at home is not only less expensive than institution-based care, but sometimes far more effective—as well as overcoming the necessity to travel and the tendency to put off seeking care.  Surgical aftercare through home visits is now common, in-home infusions or dialysis or massage therapy constitute a growing trend.  Regular visits by a nurse or a health coach, especially for seniors with chronic conditions or for those struggling with opioid and other addictions, are being tested or considered in many places, and there is some evidence that such visits are more effective in helping people adopt healthy behaviors than care in an institutional setting—as well as less expensive. Assistance with non-medical tasks of daily living that are important to maintaining health are now often provided by volunteers, but increasingly such wellness services are being viewed as a part of basic healthcare. In one instance in California, simply inspecting homes of seniors and installing grab bars or stair railings or replacing loose rugs cut the number of falls (and the resulting hospital stays) in half.

The Amazon Dot, a smaller version of the Amazon Echo, can help with daily tasks, make phone calls, answer questions, even remind a person to take medication at a certain time.

A Virtual Health Coach. Millions of people now have an Amazon Echo and its voice-driven intelligent assistant, Alexa, that they use to order new supplies, turn on lights, or play music—just by talking to it.  Now Alexa (and similar voice-based systems from Google and Apple) are starting to be used in healthcare. Alexa can answer questions about your conditions or symptoms or an upcoming doctor’s appointment, remind you to take medicines or order refills, or provide updates on vital signs or pain levels to a remote nurse—all without touching a computer. If you fall, Alexa can call the ambulance. For patients with limited eye sight or who are bed-ridden, Alexa can become a constant companion and a vital link to assistance.

Expert Assistance. Increasingly, large organizations are using artificial intelligence tools to mine large datasets and “learn” how to do things more effectively. So as voice-driven systems interact with millions of patients, asking them about their symptoms—and that data is coupled to the clinical signals provided by in-home sensors for blood pressure, blood sugar, fever, etc.—it’s not very far fetched to imagine that IBM’s Watson or other AI systems may be able to diagnose many health conditions as well as even the most expert doctors—and enable earlier diagnosis and treatment—all without leaving home.

If such things seem hard to imagine, remember that Kent County will soon have the essential infrastructure—near universal access to fast internet connectivity.  Keeping in-patient services at the hospital would be important (and might take some lobbying with lawmakers in Annapolis).  But in the long run, improved access to care through the new tools and services described above, especially for vulnerable populations, may be even more important for the future of health than what kind of local health facility we have.

The Amazon Echo with “Alexa,” your new personal – and maybe even healthcare – assistant.

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Gigabit County: The Future of Broadband and Its Implications for Kent County

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When Scott Boone, the IT Director for Kent County, speaks at events or attends meetings outside Kent County, he hands out plastic cards that say “Our Gigabit County is Open for Business!” on one side and on the other side show a map of the fiber loops that crisscross the county. The cards also contain a flash drive loaded with detailed information on how to start a business in the county.

Lately, he is giving out lots of these cards, because national organizations and many other rural counties want to know: How did Kent attract the money and the technical talent for a project that seems likely to make Kent the first rural county to provide very high speed internet access—up to a gigabit (1000 megabits) per second—to virtually every home, every school, and every business? How did it happen that Kent County, a relatively small place with less than 20,000 inhabitants, is now served by optical fiber backbones from four different providers—two of which are providing fiber to the home or business. In addition, Kent County is served by four wireless internet service providers that also offer high speed broadband connections for home or business. Few urban areas in the country and virtually no other rural counties have such a wealth of choice—of providers, speeds, and prices.

One answer is strong and sustained political support from the County Commissioners. William Pickrum was instrumental in attracting the county’s first wireless internet service provider back in 2004 and has remained an advocate for broadband services. Ronald Fithian suggested that the county enter the broadband project in a competition that resulted in an award from the Maryland Association of Counties. William A. Short has been active in overseeing the fiber buildout. Equally important, the county’s frugal practices over many years meant that it could afford the project’s $4.5 million cost without raising taxes. In addition, the county has licensed 3 wireless internet providers to place their equipment on county water towers rent free, if they also provide discounted service to certain low-income families with school-age children.

Another answer is vision. Scott Boone and County Administrator Shelley Heller designed the Request for Proposals that launched the project in a way that encouraged ambitious proposals. They and Jamie Williams, the county’s economic development director, believed that better access to broadband was critical for the future of education and healthcare in Kent County as well as for attracting new businesses and creating new jobs. Boone also reserved www.gigcounty.com and other on-line addresses and has designed an ambitious program to market the county’s new digital infrastructure.

A third answer is good timing. FTS Fiber, the winning bidder to the RFP, was planning to build a fiber ring with hundreds of individual optical fibers to connect a major internet exchange point in Ashburn, Virginia to a new undersea fiber link in Virgina Beach. The undersea link and the fiber ring serve clients who are very major users of the internet and wanted an additional route for internet traffic to and from Europe that did not go through New York City. FTS originally planned to build the eastern half of the ring down the Delmarva Peninsula by crossing the Chesapeake Bay below the Bay Bridge, but realized they could cross to Rock Hall and run the fiber through Kent County and the upper Eastern Shore just as well. (It didn’t hurt that Brett Hill, CEO of FTS, has a home on the Eastern Shore and so had a personal interest in bringing better connectivity to the region.) So FTS proposed to re-route its fiber ring and and to install an additional 110 miles of fiber in Kent County connecting 54 county government facilities, as well as to lay fiber to every home and business that requested it.

FTS brought in a retail partner, ThinkBig Networks, to lease the fibers, install customer equipment (optical fiber “routers” that provide in-home or in-office WiFi networks), and provide gigabit internet service. Under the contract, the county pays FTS $4.5 million for connecting its facilities (but in return will get 10 years of free service, dramatically lowering its internet and telecommunications costs). The county will also receive a portion of the fiber lease rentals from ThinkBig or other entities (including other internet service providers) that lease the fiber network.

Gigabit internet (1000 megabits per second) is unbelievably fast in today’s terms. You can download a whole season of your favorite Netflix or Amazon series in a few minutes. That kind of speed is ideal, perhaps even necessary, for what’s coming—streaming video for sports, news, and everything else, still higher definition TV sets that display 8 times as many pixels, virtual reality “tours” of popular destinations or imagined worlds. The global economy is increasingly being shaped by internet platform or cloud-based companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook that don’t make things but rather connect buyers and sellers, or connect people to information, or to each other. Soon banking and other financial services will be delivered the same way—through new and more secure internet platforms called blockchains—and a wide range of healthcare services will also be delivered on-line or by connecting smart, in-home devices to cloud-based algorithms and artificial intelligence diagnostic tools. Education, including Kent County Public Schools, is already moving to individualized, digital learning platforms for which students need to have internet access at home as well as in school.

So Kent County is likely to be uniquely prepared for this sea change in the way we live, learn, and work—if its citizens and businesses take full advantage of the gigabit infrastructure. And that should be easy, because the FTS fiber has stimulated other internet service providers to up their game as well. Atlantic Broadband has rushed to lay fiber to the home in several Kent County neighborhoods, trying to lock up customers before FTS gets there. The company now offers slower speeds (up to 120 megabits), but says that it is already offering gigabit service over its fiber in one town in Connecticut, and expects to eventually offer that level of service on the Eastern Shore as well. Verizon has fiber here as well, although it has yet shown no interest in providing fiber to the home. So does the Maryland Broadband Coalition, which only serves member entities such as Washington College.

There are also four wireless internet service providers active in the county—Bridgemaxx, Delmarva WiFi, Tidewater WiFi, and a new, well-financed entry, Cambio WiFi. They operate from towers—both county towers and commercial structures and even some grain elevators—and typically offer substantially slower speeds, 5 to 25 megabits. However, three of the wireless providers say they can offer customers as much as 100 megabits. (See the Service Providers below for listed speeds and prices.) Wireless links from a tower to a home or business usually can’t be longer than 5-7 miles and work best when there is line of sight (eg, no trees or buildings in the way), but newer technology has improved the ability to penetrate trees and to limit interference. (See theTechnology Primer below.) For customers that think they don’t yet need or can’t afford fiber speeds, wireless connections may be of interest.

There is still another possible tier of service, access over a shared WiFi hotspot. The county could provide such hotspots or license an internet service provider to do so for neighborhoods around each of the 50+ facilities where it has a fiber link: eight school buildings, 11 fire, police, or other public safety facilities, several libraries, municipal office buildings, and more than 20 public works, water treatment facilities, or similar locations. Similar hotspots could be set up around churches or community centers—indeed several churches in Kent County are already doing just that through a program of the Kent County Learning Center aimed at helping students. Hot Spot access could be subsidized (free) or by subscription.

In fact, just such a hotspot or wireless cloud is being planned on a larger scale to resolve the lack of mobile phone or internet coverage in Chestertown—via a partnership between the town, the county, Washington College, and FTS. The hotspot would cover the marina/waterfront area, the downtown business district at least up to Washington College, the entire college campus, and possibly other areas such as the proposed new KRM business park. The hotspot—similar to those found in sports stadiums or modern airports—would use advanced distributed antennas, each backed by fiber, and would provide not only WiFi access but also likely mobile phone connectivity for carriers that decide to participate (negotiations are underway). That means phones would reliably work either over the carrier network or over WiFi and that laptops and tablets would also work everywhere outside in the hotspot and likely in storefronts or restaurants as well. The distributed antennae network would have the capacity to serve large numbers of people—e.g., Tea Party Festival crowds. Of course, hot spots are typically not as secure as unshared internet connections—not the best place to do your internet banking, for example—so businesses and most homes will want their own fiber or wireless link. Nonetheless the hotspot will make Chestertown more connected than many major urban locations.

Just in time for Memorial Day, Cambio Wifi has created a junior version of the WiFi hotspot—centered on Fountain Park—with an antenna on the roof of The Finishing Touch. It’s modest in speed and capacity, up to 5 megabits, but its free, serves a pressing need, and is indicative of the entrepreneurial energy that the  Gigabit County project has unleased.

Implications

It seems obvious that high speed fiber, wireless, and mobile links will improve lifestyles—for residents and visitors. It will also improve the business environment. In one well-documented case, Chattanooga, Tennessee, experienced an economic boom after making fiber and internet access widely available and affordable. It became known as a start-up city, attracted many new businesses and experienced an in-migration of new residents, especially young people. Could Chestertown, and Kent County as a whole, experience a similar renaissance? In a way, it’s already happening. The proposed KRM business park, which will retain at least 300 Dixon Valve jobs for the area in a new headquarters complex and likely create that many more jobs from new businesses, would probably not have happened without the optical fiber network, according to KRM officials.

Moreover, the availability of the FTS fiber loop in the county already has some companies exploring the possibility of creating an internet data center—a server warehouse with thousands of data storage computers hosting cloud-based services—in the Millington Industrial zone. Sitting atop hundreds of optical fibers and close to an undersea link, as well as proximity to several major airports and the Rt. 301 highway, might in fact prove attractive to quite a few internet-dependent businesses. And these are precisely the kind of next-generation, low-impact business that would fit well in Kent County and bring highly-skilled talent to live here, as well as creating jobs for the increasingly tech-savvy students graduating from Kent County schools.

Universal connectivity would benefit many others as well. Consider the artisan/artist community in the county, and suppose that Gallery shows, First Friday events, and the annual studio tour happened on-line as well—on a YouTube channel, for example, and on Facebook, with links to artists’ websites. That way people in Washington, Baltimore, or Philadelphia could also participate virtually and strengthen their link to the county—and artists might sell more of their work.

Libraries in Kent County as elsewhere are becoming digital repositories. Did you know you could check out and download a Kindle book, without having to drive to the library—if you have internet access?  And that such digital library resources are poised to expand dramatically in the future—with instructional videos, interactive learning games, geneaology mapping tools?

The future of the Chestertown Hospital is in doubt, at least as a traditional in-patient facility. But what if it became, in addition, a telemedicine center for consults with remote specialists, a dispatching center for emergency transport via ambulance or helicopter in critical cases, even a hub of home-care nurses that visited new mothers and aging seniors on a regular basis, bringing medicines, mobile diagnostic tools, and a tablet for in-home video-consults with a doctor? What would it mean for people living alone to have a virtual assistant (like Amazon’s Alexa) ask each morning about pain levels, remind about medicines, or monitor for slips and falls and call for help emergency help if needed? The next few years will see a host of smart in-home devices and sophisticated on-line diagnostic tools designed to keep people healthier and out of hospitals or to detect strokes before they happen—making reliable internet access sometimes a matter of life and death.

And what do individualized digital learning platforms—like the ones Kent County Public Schools have already implemented—mean for student achievement, especially with universal student 24/7 access to the platform and other on-line tools from home?  Even without universal access, the results are already showing up with higher rankings in state-wide comparisons. But the next wave of instructional materials will make heavy use of virtual reality tools—to allow students to explore how a heart works, for example, or to understand how galaxies form—that are even more dependent on fast internet access. So it’s clear that broadband access is critical for Kent County’s next generation to succeed, as students prepare for lives in a world where many traditional jobs may not exist.

These and other implications of the Gigabit County will be the subject of other articles in this series. The Spy invites comment under its new Future Focus department, and hopes to further stimulate discussion and engagement via a series of guest lectures or moderated expert panels.

 A Guide to Internet Service Providers in Kent County

Prices and speeds quoted for residential service, based on information from the providers, but you are advised to call them to get a quote for your location and needs or for business service. Some providers offer discounted introductory prices. Install prices can vary.

Fiber

ThinkBig Networks. Unlimited Gigabit service (1000 Megabits) for $99/month over the FTS fiber.  Install $400 (can be spread over 3 years), which includes a sophisticated router. For now, this is the only gigabit provider in the county, offering speeds more than 8 times what any other provider can offer and at a price comparable or even lower than other providers’ high speed service. Mark Wagner, CEO of ThinkBig and an experienced IT professional, suggests that you think of the install fee as an investment that pays off over several years, since you will never need another internet connection. He says the company will be profitable with as few as several thousand customers across the Eastern Shore, that demand is brisk, and that he expects to have 1000 customers hooked up in Kent County alone by the end of the summer. He says the company is committed to the goal of universal access, and will be willing to work with the county to make that happen. www.ThinkBignets.com

Atlantic Broadband. Currently offering 15/60/120 megabits download speeds in Kent County at prices ranging up to $80.99/month for internet services only. The company also offers internet, cable TV, and phone packages. David Isenberg, a Boston-based executive, says the company intends to be competitive, is upgrading their system on the Eastern Shore, and plans eventually to offer gigabit service in Maryland. They recently provided fiber to the home in the Kinards Point, Worton, neighborhood and expect to do that in most new buildouts. www.atlanticbb.com

Wireless

Bridgemaxx. Offering 2/3/6/10 megabits download speeds at prices from $34.95 to $84.95, with installation extra. CEO Jim Conner says that they can provide up to 30 megabits, and that they can also provide phone service, and video service via their partner Direct TV. Bridgemaxx has been active on the Eastern Shore for several years and already has numerous customers. www.bridgemaxx.com

Delmarva WiFi. Offering 5/10/25 megabits download and upload speeds at prices from $64.96 to $109.95/month. Install and customer equipment extra. CEO John Woodfield says that with newer equipment, they can provide speeds up to 100 megabits to line of sight customers. Delmarva has also been active across the Eastern Shore for several years. www.delmarvawifi.com

Cambio WiFi. Offering 8/12/16/25 megabits download speeds at prices ranging from $54.95 to $124.95. Install extra. CEO Steve Kirby says that they can provide speeds as high as 100 megabits. Cambio provides service over its own licensed frequencies to minimize interference. Cambio is a relatively new entrant on the Eastern Shore, launching in Kent County (although they have been serving Tolchester Marina and other customers since 2015), but intends to expand across the Eastern Shore and beyond.  www.cambiowifi.com

Tidewater WiFi. Offering 25 megabits of download for $75/month, with higher levels of usage at prices up to $120/month, activation fee extra. Offers service primarily in the Galena area. www.tidewaterwifi.com

A Technology Primer

Like most things digital, the technologies that bring internet to your home keep getting faster, better, and cheaper. Take optical fibers, for example, which can now carry an internet signal (in the form of light) 20 miles or more before it needs to be boosted or amplified. Installing such fibers (which come wrapped in heavy insulation) is easier now too, with trenching tools or with guided horizontal drills that punch a cable-sized hole 400 feet long (and 4 to 8 feet underground), then pull a bundle of optical fibers through the hole as the drill withdraws. The cable crews installing fiber in Kent County (see pics/video) say they can typically lay 800 feet of fiber per day, sometimes more.

When a fiber reaches your home, it is connected to a device called an optical network terminal, which converts it into a WiFi signal and also provide Ethernet jacks, like a conventional router. Routers, too, have improved; many today offer WiFi networks on two different frequencies to give homeowners more ways to connect their devices. And there are more devices to connect—not only mobile phones, tablets, and computers, but also TVs, electronic gaming terminals, music systems, thermostats, security systems, and other “smart home” tools. Two frequencies allow people to segregate devices that carry sensitive information—like computers used for on-line banking or professional activities—from those that are wide open (your smart thermostat, your children’s Facebook or Snapchat links).

When a wireless internet signal reaches your home, it also is typically captured by an external antenna that connects to a WiFi router in your home. But wireless technology has also improved; some providers (including some in Kent County) now use what is called WiFi over LTE, which is a form of wireless transmission that is used by mobile telecom companies on their licensed frequencies, but can now also be used in the unlicensed WiFi frequencies. WiFi over LTE is said to resist interference better and offer improved penetration through trees, which means better access and higher effective speeds.

Al Hammond holds degrees in Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Stanford University and Harvard University. He is a serial entrepreneur (having founded 5 enterprises) and a prolific writer (having authored or contributed to 16 books and nearly 200 articles). In the 1970s, he helped to edit the international journal Science, and went on to found and edit several national publications, including Science 80/86 (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Issues in Science and Technology (published by the National Academy of Science). He lives in Chestertown, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Growing Green: A New Hi-Tech Start-Up in Kent County by Al Hammond

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Consumers in Kent County have begun to see a new, locally grown type of lettuce in food stores and on their plates at local restaurants. Notable for its attractive appearance, good taste, and lack of spoilage, what’s really different is how it’s grown—by a hi-tech process known as hydroponics. That means it’s grown not in soil but in plastic trays through which water and nutrients flow, inside a climate-controlled, computer-monitored greenhouse. The lettuce is consequently pesticide-free. The process yields a new crop every 6 weeks, but with staggered start times for different trays, so that fresh product is harvested every day, even in winter.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 8.22.48 AMThis new crop comes from Red Acres Hydroponics, a start-up venture based in Worton, on the grounds of a family-owned farm that also produces grain, hay, and straw by traditional farming methods. But hydroponics is hardly traditional and indeed may be the future of farming.

For one thing, crops grown with hydroponics typically use only 1/20th as much water, about 1/4th as much land, and no pesticides, compared to traditional agriculture, and they don’t require big fossil-fueled tractors or harvesters: the process is very environmentally-friendly. For another, hydroponic crops often have higher nutritional content, because their nutrient intake (more than a dozen different minerals) and the levels of carbon dioxide (which is “oxygen” for plants) in the greenhouse are continuously monitored and adjusted for optimum plant growth by the computerized system. So hydroponic crops get a checkmark is the “good for your health” column as well. And for Kent County customers, the produce is extremely fresh—Red Acres Hydroponics ships to restaurants and food stores several times each week (daily when needed). They also sell direct to consumers at their facility at Red Acre Farm next to the Kent County High School.

So how did such a novel venture take root in Kent County? Therein lies a human story of coincidence and entrepreneurship straight out of Silicon Valley. The founding team consists of Bryan Williams, a hard-working farmer whose family has owned and run Red Acres Farm for over a century; Liza Goetz, who is an award-winning teacher of agriculture and science at Kent County High School (she was chosen as Kent County Teacher of the Year for 2015); and Billy Wessel, who also has extensive farming and business experience. Last winter, Bryan’s wife Tracey, who is the principal at Kent County High School and thus Liza’s boss, was looking for a way to put some large potted plants inside during the cold season, and asked Liza if she could store them in the school’s little teaching greenhouse. When Bryan delivered them for her (they were quite heavy), he bumped into a small demonstration hydroponic system that Liza had set up for teaching purposes, and he asked, what’s that? So, never hesitant to teach, Liza explained. Then a few weeks later Brian and Tracey attended a dinner and happened to be seated at a table with a man from the Farm Bureau. Just making conversation, Bryan asked, what’s new in farming these days? “Hydroponics,” the farm expert said, and went on to explain why it’s going to be big. So on the way home, Bryan asked Tracey for Liza’s phone number, called her, and started what became an intensive process of research and planning that soon engaged Billy as well, and Dr. Joseph Bauer, a professor of business development at Washington College (and not coincidentally Liza’s father), and lots of other advisors and friends (many of whom told the team flat out “You’re crazy to do this”). But the team eventually convinced themselves that starting a new venture might be risky, but it was not crazy—rather a real opportunity too good to pass up—and decided, “It’s a go.”

In typical Silicon Valley fashion, the launch happened (and is still happening) with the team working nights and weekends while retaining their day jobs—Bryan is still running his farm, Liza is teaching full-time at the high school, Billy is volunteering his time. Bryan obtained a loan, and the facility was built last summer, adjacent to an existing barn. It consists of a huge plastic tent stretched over a series of steel hoops and then filled with the growing trays, carefully sloped so that the water and nutrients flow from one end to the other. (See photos.) Hooked up to the tent is a nutrient feed tank, air circulation, and climate control equipment, a carbon dioxide generator, and a sophisticated computer brain. Production started in October, with the team giving away samples to prospective customers. But as the team found its feet and gained confidence in their ability to manage the hydroponic process—it looks simple but is an incredibly complex, data-driven operation—sales have ramped up rapidly. Five months on, their facility is nearing its full production capacity, and the team is already starting to talk about when, rather than if, they will build a second unit. Moreover, from a business perspective, the venture has already crossed a magic line that took Amazon and Google years to reach—it’s cashflow positive, although it’s still getting quite a bit of volunteer help—Liza’s daughter Lizzy, Bryan’s daughter Rachel and son B (for Bryan), who are often onsite starting new plants in the nursery or helping with harvesting, as well as Bryan’s mom and partner in the farm Miss Sis (who keeps the books and makes snacks for the volunteer team).

Red Acres Hydroponics production facility near Kent County High School in Worton.

Red Acres Hydroponics production facility near Kent County High School in Worton. It looks bucolic and simple—just lettuce growing in trays. But to make it work requires minute-to-minute monitoring of nutrient concentrations in the feed water and regular adjustments in carbon dioxide levels.

So far, so good. But it’s a fair question to ask of any new venture: Is this a flash in the pan, or something that could be significant for Kent County’s economic future? The customer feedback is excellent. Some of their restaurant customers have dropped their earlier suppliers for lettuce, most of whom ship from Florida or Arizona, because they found they had to throw away too much-spoiled produce. Others have told the team they value not only the quality of Red Acre Hydroponics lettuce (and the spices they now grow too), but, even more, the ability to call up this local business and say, “Can you get me three dozen heads before tonight?” The team also finds that individual consumers, as well as getting fresh produce in winter, really like the idea of supporting a local business. They are brainstorming new categories of customers, beginning to think about broadening their geographic reach to other parts of the upper eastern shore, getting more systematic about marketing and distribution. They will be creating full- and part-time paid jobs as they hire permanent staff. Just how big the venture can grow is uncertain, but it seems likely to become a significant local business at the least.

More importantly, if such a hi-tech green business can thrive here, it might help Kent County’s reputation as a place to do business, as a source of branded produce very much aligned with the national trend toward local, healthy foods, or as an environmentally conscious community. Might more such businesses make the county an attractive place to live for health conscious families? Might the success of one hi-tech startup attract others—especially given the prospect of good internet connectivity across the county? Might an incubator for new businesses being discussed at Washington College—one that encouraged and helped other small startups take root and flourish here—begin to generate real momentum? It certainly can’t hurt. Stay tuned, and pass the salad dressing.

Al Hammond holds degrees in Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Stanford University and Harvard University. He is a serial entrepreneur (having founded 5 enterprises) and a prolific writer (having authored or contributed to 16 books and nearly 200 articles). In the 1970s, he helped to edit the international journal Science, and went on to found and edit several national publications, including Science 80/86 (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Issues in Science and Technology (published by the National Academy of Science). He lives in Worton, Maryland and Washington, D.C.