“Raise your hand if someone in your family has died from cancer.”

University of Louisville President, James Ramsey, usually saves this question until the end of his presentations, but during the Dataseam conference in early December, he opened with it.

“Look around,” he urged.

There were hands everywhere. Dozens of tables were filled to capacity with Dataseam teachers, superintendents, iLife Instructors, and Principals from Dataseam school districts.  I looked around – almost everyone in the room had raised their hand. Thankfully the lights were dim, as you could sense tears welling up, the hairs on my arm stood on end.

The Dataseam Conference is no ordinary technology conference. Yes, we talked about computers, operating systems, challenges and solutions.  And yes, we talked software, imaging, and teaching practices.  Sessions included presentations on iPad deployment and implementation, key projects and programs from the Ky Dept of Ed, and professional development projects at MSU.  What made this conference unique, what made it remarkable, were the words that kept popping up:  Kids. Computers. Cancer Research.

Words like this are what make Dataseam atypical.  The multifaceted initiative is very circular, and starts in the classroom, with your students.  Everyday, students in Dataseam School districts use their computers to create blogs, complete assignments, make audio books and podcasts, edit movies, conduct experiments, and much, MUCH more. Our teachers improve and enhance classroom websites, create assignments, improve communication, and share lesson plans.  They create photo albums, bonus work, announcements, and calendars.  Classrooms become transparent, and grow far beyond the walls of the school.

It is the other side of the coin that sets Dataseam apart – and what I want you to think about, share with your students, as a new year gets underway. We were reminded last month that our teachers and students are part of something massive, something much bigger than a desktop computer, and can say without hesitation that they ARE making a difference.

Lives are being saved – literally.  You are all part of one of the biggest advances in healthcare.  The computers in your classrooms are the tools used by researchers at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center to discover potential cancer drugs.  Dr. John Trent, collaborating with 14 research teams, works with this computational drug discovery. They have harnessed the incredible processing powers of YOUR computers on the DataseamGrid to accomplish incredible feats.

Stop here. Re-read these last few sentences, it’s almost beyond comprehension, like an episode of Star Trek, that the computers can perform in this way.  Dr. Trent explained that the drug compounds from the DataseamGrid can be tested in TWO DAYS.  Two Days!  It would take one computer 200 years to accomplish this. This is doable. This is something we are actually DOING. In his words, “Not many people get a chance to say they have saved a life.  Those of you in the Dataseam school districts can say it with certainty.”

As 2011 came to a climactic close, with finals, projects, Christmas Parties, and assemblies, students and teachers were most likely thinking of their upcoming holiday. I was certainly busy with my fair share of children’s activities and family obligations. But the Dataseam Conference provided the necessary reset, and refocus for the upcoming year.  It was a reminder that our priority lies not in providing technology for this generation.  At the heart of all Dataseam activity, the nucleus if you will, is finding a cure for cancer. The opportunities available, the transformations taking place, the doors that are being opened go far beyond opening a box holding a new iMac or iPad.  There is an enormous, circular project happening here.  Professional Development, economic stimuli, workforce training, research, cancer drugs – all of these things start with the tiniest idea that one can make a difference.

From our Kindergarten students to our Dataseam Scholars, education is being transformed.  From the tobacco fields of Western Kentucky to the Laboratories at the Brown Cancer Center, drugs are being developed.  From our tiny office in Louisville, to the far reaches of Eastern Kentucky, lives are being changed.

And you are a part of that. You are the spark that ignites the flame in young minds, your encouragement kindles this flame, and keeps it going.  We all need to be reminded, and encouraged, as this New Year begins, that what our Dataseam teachers are doing in their classrooms every day is making a difference, and changing lives.