Students Who Teach, It’s All Part Of Remaking The Education System

[This summer I helped to coordinate the South Fayette STEAM Innovation Summer Institute. Here’s a great story done by WESA-FM, the PBS affiliate in Pittsburgh,  about the role of students as teachers for the Summer Institute.]

South Fayette STEAM Institute

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

It may be summer, but on a recent sunny June day, a small group of teachers and students stayed indoors. They sat in classrooms at the South Fayette School District campus for a different take on traditional summer school.

In the STEAM Summer Institute, teachers far out-numbered students, and in some instances, it was the students who were doing the teaching.

South Fayette High School Freshman Parv Shrivastava was one of those students. He taught a room full of teachers how to use programming language. Shrivastava used a block-based programming language know as Scratch, to coax a cartoon cat across a computer screen. Students watched as his work was projected onto a white board.

After the getting the grasp of Scratch, the teachers used Raspberry Pi, or a small computer used to learn programming language. Using that, the teachers put their new skills to the test, using some wires and a resister to turn on and off an LED.

“We’re feeling very accomplished right now,” said Ryan Puz, a recent college graduate. She spent last year as a substitute teacher and is now looking for a classroom to call her own.

Puz said the knowledge level of the students was “mind blowing.”

The two weeks of workshops at the Summer Institute focus on helping teachers incorporate maker space and science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM, concepts into their classrooms.

The idea to have students teach the teachers came after watching students teach the computer programing language, Python, to each other, said South Fayette Director of Technology and Innovation Aileen Owens. While at one of the district’s annual summer institutes, she said she realized teachers might also want to learn the language.

“As we looked around at professionals in the field (to teach the class), professionals were very busy and didn’t have a lot of time to devote to this,” Owens said. “So we took the students who have been teaching and then assigned them to be teachers.”

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A Novel Way of Teaching Engineering

[In this Slate article based on a Hechinger Report elementary students are solving a real world problem based on an issue from a novel they read. This is an exciting way of combining literature and engineering. The tools can be recyclables with Littlebits or Hummingbird kits.]

LEGO enginineering elemetery school.

At Linden STEAM Academy in Malden, Massachusetts, third graders build a Lego prototype as part of the Novel Engineering initiative, which mixes engineering with literacy in elementary school classrooms. Photo by Chris Berdik

One recent morning, at a public school in Malden, Massachusetts, north of Boston, teams of third graders rushed around programming sensors on computers, wiring them to motors, digging into bins of Legos and gears, and rummaging through boxes of paper towel rolls, egg cartons, and pipe cleaners. Their mission was to protect a baby turtle from a dog—a beloved, mischievous black Lab named Tornado, the title character of a novel they had read for class.

The fictional dog is named after a twister that flung him into the life of a young farm boy. During one of their adventures, the thirsty pup drinks from a pet turtle’s watery home and slurps up the creature in the process. Hence the turtle-rescue project for these third graders at the Linden STEAM Academy (STEM plus Art). It’s part of an initiative called Novel Engineering led by researchers at nearby Tufts University, in which engineering challenges are plucked from the plots of assigned books. The elementary school lesson plan, developed at Tuft’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, is backed by the National Science Foundation.

In America’s push for STEAM education, engineering is at the heart of the acronym, but it’s largely missing from elementary school classrooms. The goal of Novel Engineering is to bolster reading comprehension through hands-on projects while teaching students the engineering process and linking it to the human (or at least canine) problems it helps fix.

In the five years since Novel Engineering began, the CEEO team and partner universities have taught the approach to about 150 teachers around the country. They have also stocked an online repository with sample projects and a list of books, by grade level, that have mixed well with engineering in the past, including Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Roald Dahl’s  James and the Giant Peach.

CEEO’s director, Merredith Portsmore, said they work with teachers to choose a good fit from the year’s assigned reading. Some books fit the initiative better than others. For instance, Portsmore noted, “engineering doesn’t really work in fantasy books, like Harry Potter. Because, if you have a magic wand, why would you need engineering?”

“Our goal is to make it easy for teachers, who are sometimes under a lot of pressure,” said Portsmore.

Rather than reducing books to engineering “design briefs,” Portsmore said, Novel Engineering teachers discuss all the challenges characters face, as they normally would, “and then ask which of these problems can we solve with engineering and which ones won’t work for that.”

The scarcity of engineering in grade schools not only slows the supply of home-grown engineers, it hurts their skills, according to Morgan Hynes, an engineering professor who helped lead Novel Engineering before leaving Tufts for Purdue in 2013. That’s because the crucial human pieces of engineering—learning the end-users’ needs and tendencies and working collaboratively to solve problems—can get lost in the shuffle when “real engineering” is postponed until students have mastered advanced math and physics.

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Climate Game Jam

climate_game_jamWritten in cooperation with Peg Steffins from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On September 30, Zulama students from South Fayette High School and Elizabeth Forward High School in Pennsylvania participated in the National Climate Game Jam at the Carnegie Mellon Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Students from Harmony High School in Harmony, Florida, gathered in their Zulama classroom for the day. From board games, to card games, to digital games, Zulama students put their game design skills to work to create several creative games with a focus on science.


Harmony High School hosted 35 student game designers for the day long event. Beginning at 7 a.m. and working non-stop through lunch and into the afternoon, eight design teams made up of student game designers, computer programmers, and artists created a variety of games focused on climate change. Brad Davey and Hilarie Davis, consultants with NOAA, served as resident experts, answering student questions and encouraging student creativity. Bev Vaillancourt from Zulama spent the day at Harmony High School facilitating connections with Peg Steffins from NOAA who communicated with Harmony High School game designers twice during the day via SKYPE to congratulate students on their participation and provide expert assistance when needed. Harmony High School teacher Lynn VanderZyl managed technical questions with ease from her Zulama students throughout the day as they put their GameMaker programming and game design skills to work. According to comments from several students, the climate game jam day was the best school day ever!

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