The S&S Worldwide team is proud to be the sponsor of the National Afterschool Association Next Generation Award for Afterschool for 2017. We are honored to highlight the nominees and winners for their accomplishments and dedication to the afterschool community.
Here is Isabel Huff’s story:
My name is Isabel, and I am the Outreach Coordinator for an engineering curriculum called Through My Window. When I began working on this project during my first year at Smith College, I had no idea I would still be working on it more than six years later.
My interest in STEM outreach began when I was a middle school student in Montana. I participated in a science outreach program at the local university which involved launching high-altitude weather balloons. I loved the program, and ended up working on it once I entered high school. When I learned that I could work with a faculty member at Smith who was engaged in a STEM project involving outreach to upper-elementary and middle-schoolers, I was excited.
The innovative Through My Window engineering curriculum applies cutting-edge educational approaches in 3 multimedia components:
- A young adult novel called Talk to Me
- Online learning modules that we call “learning adventures” – interactive stories that allow students to interact with Talk to Me characters as they learn more about engineering
- Offline enrichment activities
About the Through My Window Program
The idea behind Through My Window is that activating students’ imaginations as they collaborate on open-ended questions leads to engagement and deeper learning. It’s exactly where I think education should be headed if we’re going to create the innovators of the future.
Another distinctive feature of Through My Window is the diverse set of characters who populate the novel and online learning adventures. These characters have well-rounded personalities and realistic body types, and there are multiple strong female leads. We believe that if students can see themselves through the eyes of these characters, they’ll care about the engineering these characters do and start to develop STEM identity.
Through My Window is a major contrast to traditional engineering curriculum and resources that reinforce the ubiquitous image of an engineer as a man in a hard hat. But it’s also a major contrast to a well-intentioned but ultimately problematic set of recent resources designed to engage girls in engineering using dolls with impossibly unrealistic bodies and words like “diva” and “princess.” These resources pander to stereotypes of girls’ preferences rather than respecting their intelligence and demonstrating the positive effect engineering has on society. After all, female-dominated careers like nursing and teaching are most concerned with helping people, not looking cute.
Talk to Me – A Novel By Sonia Ellis
Who better to craft exciting, authentic stories about engineering that appeal to all students than a female engineer-turned-writer named Sonia Ellis? In Talk to Me, Sonia tells the tale of fourteen-year-old Sadina Reyes. Sadina’s little sister Maddie has selective mutism (a real anxiety disorder) and talks only to her family and robotic cat Bella. One night, Maddie sees an intruder and becomes the only one who can identify him and keep Mom from being arrested. But Maddie is too petrified to talk to anyone. Meanwhile, Sadina’s friend Rio is acting strangely, and she’s worried he’s somehow involved in the intrusion. As Sadina’s world begins to collapse, her friends unite to transform Bella into Chattercat, a talking robot that just might get answers from Maddie. Sonia weaves in the engineering concepts of engineering design (used to redesign Bella), artificial intelligence (used to create a Chattercat that can talk and understand), and engineering ethics (as Sadina and her mom face parallel ethical dilemmas).
The online learning adventures allow students to dive deeper into engineering by joining the Talk to Me characters in interactive stories. The first, called Rio’s Brain, focuses on artificial intelligence. Rio discovers researchers have removed his brain and plan to destroy it. It’s the job of the student to search a mysterious mansion and determine whether it’s possible to create an artificial brain to save Rio. The second adventure, Trapped in Time, is about the NGSS-aligned engineering design cycle. In this adventure, Sadina and her friends find a time machine that interfered with the history of engineering design! Students join the characters as they time travel to learn about design, fix the past, and save the future.
Offline enrichment activities, about topics like facial recognition, the future of robot caregivers, and the basics of programming, provide opportunities for educators to facilitate deeper investigation of engineering. The activities include hands-on exploration, research, and discussion, with a focus on putting engineering in the context of helping society.
My job is to broaden the reach of Through My Window and to support educators as they adopt the curriculum for use with their students. I spread the word about our curriculum by presenting and exhibiting at conferences all over the country, where I meet education researchers, teachers, afterschool educators, administrators, and others. I also create personalized lesson plans, lead professional development workshops, and provide ongoing technical and curriculum support. In fact, what I like most about my job is working with educators’ creative ideas about how to implement in their distinctive settings. They are dedicated experts who know so much about their students; it’s fun to collaborate and identify the specific resources that work best for them. These educators bring our curriculum alive, which is why we’re humbled when they tell us Through My Window makes a difference for their students and for them. We’re also grateful that, thanks to our funding from the National Science Foundation, we can provide Through My Window to all educators at no cost.
Implementing Through My Window
One example of innovative implementation is the 18 sites from the Lighthouse Program in Bridgeport, CT that have used Through My Window during their summer programs for the past two years. Laurie Giff, one of the site coordinators, said, “It engaged my third, fourth, fifth, sixth graders in ways that I had never imagined were possible. . . For an educator, that’s the most amazing thing; to see children learning and having fun while they do it.” Ellen Stewart, another site coordinator, added, “One of the main reasons I liked it is because we have a lot of special education students that cannot keep up with the same reading level as other children. . . [but the] instructor read [Talk to Me] aloud so this kept them engaged and the computer of course did. . . so that they were not discriminated, they didn’t feel stupid. . . I love the program and I want a sequel.” Site Coordinator Cesar Lara said Through My Window also changed his own views about engineering: “Actually, I learned a lot. . . I learned about computers. Computers and technology. It changed my view of engineering. I was part of the group of people that thought that engineering was about math and science, about building bridges, and I learned that it’s more than that. You just need to be curious, and have some problem-solving skill to be a good engineer.”
Lauren Binger, a first-year STEM teacher at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland, MA, has used the curriculum as her primary content over the last couple of months. She shared, “TMW has helped my seventh graders develop a deeper understanding about engineering. They ask questions as if they were characters in the story – bringing up alternate solutions to engineering challenges from the book and learning adventures. They now see engineering as a creative process of solving problems to improve people’s lives, and as a career they could see themselves doing in the future.”
Other teachers have used Through My Window as a “do now” in a science lab class (having students read a couple of chapters of Talk to Me each day and then, when the students have finished the book, going through the learning adventures together), in afterschool programs, for in-school enrichment, and as an all-school read. We are excited to say there is much more to come, especially because Sonia is currently writing a second book and an engineering ethics learning adventure is in the works.
To learn more about the National Afterschool Association (NAA) visit naaweb.org. We proudly support their mission and dedication to the afterschool community.
S&S Worldwide is also committed to the career development and support of our afterschool professionals. We have partnered with the NAA to bring quality online courses to the industry. You can find them at our S&S Worldwide Online School.
Author: Isabel Huff, Outreach Coordinator at Through My Window.