A Chattanooga company has developed a new app that is allowing students to do interactive computer assignments at home even when they are not connected to the internet.

Thinking Media, which has developed the Learning Blade computerized curriculum for middle school students to learn about the opportunities in Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, introduced the new Learning Blade Backpack app this month to download its lessons and responses on Chromebook tablet computers. The app allows for students to work on the interactive lessons their Chromebooks even when no Internet links are available.

The app is a critical breakthrough in helping millions of students who don’t have broadband internet assess at home, either because it is not available where they live or their parents don’t subscribe to any service.

“When the pandemic hit in March, we recognized immediately that the digital divide (between those with internet and those who don’t have such access) was going to be even more divided and we needed to try to do something,” said Sheila Boyington, the president and founder of Thinking Media that has provided STEM courses to thousands of students in 5th through 9th grade. “There is still a large segment of our population that doesn’t have internet access at home.”

Learning Blade is one of the first online curriculum programs that has developed such a Google app to allow students to do their work even when they are not connected online.

“When you are at school or anyplace with internet service, you can download our interactive lessons,” Boyington said. “When you go home, you can do these interactive lessons, even if you don’t have an internet connection. The next time they come back to the internet, whether that is at McDonald’s or Starbucks or at school, it will automatically upload the results for that student.”

Learning Blade’s curriculum is provided statewide in Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina and is distributed to school districts in a majority of the other states. Learning Blade has delivered its STEM curriculum throughout the country and more than 4.3 million of its individualized lessons have been completed by middle-school students over the past five years, including more than 1.3 million lessons in Tennessee.

The program is designed to encourage more students to consider careers and study in STEM fields, which are projected to account for a majority of the better-paying jobs in the future.

After being enrolled in Learning Blade’s STEM programs, research by the Battelle research group found that 55{3c6be4297db6c6dead22aac82e61edad92a520b73a55778b8446ff6b78406501} of the students said they have more interest in a computer science career, twice as many students said they were interested in a science-related career and 69{3c6be4297db6c6dead22aac82e61edad92a520b73a55778b8446ff6b78406501} of students said thought they could use more of what they are learning in school in later life.

But until the app was developed, the individualized, interactive programs required the student to be connected online to download and upload programs and assignments.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 21 million Americans lack broadband access at home. In a separate survey, only 30 percent of teachers in high-poverty schools reported students had internet access at home.

“Until every student in our state has access to high-speed internet, our job isn’t finished,” said Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a national leader in promoting computer science education. “Resources such as Learning Blade’s new app is an innovative stop-gap that allows us to provide students a way to work at home more efficiently while we continue to build out our broadband.”

Former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, who serves as chairman of Thinking Media, said while America works to build out its broadband network, new education tools like the Backpack app are needed for students who are currently in areas without internet services.

“Rich stories are emerging from rural spots in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee,” Wamp said.

One Missouri teacher said she already has 140 students that are using the new Backpack app because they don’t have home access to the internet.

“I have one student that has been using it at home since she has no Internet, and she loves it,” Missouri teacher Amy Polanowski said about the Learning Blade Backpack app. “She said it makes her feel like other students and she can keep up with her work without having to rush through it.”

To limit the spread of COVID-19 since last March, millions of students have shifted to online learning, at least some of the time, creating gaps between those able to access internet programs and those who cannot.

Schools have attempted to address remote learning issues by purchasing low-cost computers for students to take home. The most common solution is Chromebooks, which can cost as little as $300. Technology research firm IDC estimates that over 9 million Chromebooks were shipped in third quarter of 2020, up 90{3c6be4297db6c6dead22aac82e61edad92a520b73a55778b8446ff6b78406501} over a year earlier. However, Chromebooks still rely on high-speed Internet connections for most tasks, which still leaves those without internet access at home unable to do their homework.

“We think this new app is a real game-changer to help level the playing field and bridge the digital divide,” Boyington said.

Contact Dave Flessner at [email protected] or at 423-757-6340.