We love supporting teachers all over the world, and sometimes we get an extra special opportunity to help inspire deep and joyful hands-on learning in a brand new place! June 6-10, BirdBrain’s founder and CEO, Dr. Tom Lauwers, took flight to the US Virgin Islands with a flock of Finch Robots for a week of professional development in programming, making, and classroom integration. In this guest post, Tom shares the story of his time in St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Although known as a tourist hotspot and cruise ship destination, the US Virgin Islands are home to an underserved population that is generally overlooked when it comes to educational training and resources. Infosys Foundation USA, aware of this need, has been investing in providing professional development on the islands for the last few months.
Last week I flew to the US Virgin Islands with 60 Finch Robots to train over 30 St. Thomian and Crucian teachers on computational thinking and robotics as part of an effort, funded by the Infosys Foundation USA, to train teachers on coding, physical computing, and project-based learning. The trip was supported by a team from Georgia Tech’s Constellations Center for Equity in Computing, working together with the University of the Virgin Islands EPSCOR. I was joined by teams from the Micro:bit Educational Foundation and from Chibitronics.
All three teams started by providing a two day workshop on the island of St. Thomas. Teachers in the Finch workshop enthusiastically learned how to draw shapes, joust, avoid obstacles, draw spirals, all while learning about computational thinking concepts like abstraction, algorithms, and decomposition. Teachers were provided with a robot to take home, and have started planning how they might use the Finch next year. Thanks to the free-to-all resources provided by the Infosys Foundation USA’s Pathfinders Online Institute, these teachers can continue their learning with the Finch at their own pace.
On Wednesday the teams boarded a puddle jumper to head to St. Croix. A crowded, scenic, and bumpy 25 minutes later we were on another island, but our bags, with our workshop supplies, were not. Fortunately, they showed up in the nick of time Wednesday evening!
On Thursday the micro:bit & Finch teams decided that instead of each providing a two-day workshop, we would both do two one-day workshops so that more teachers could learn each tool. We were responding in real time to feedback from teachers on St. Thomas who said they wished they could take all the workshops. We fit a ton of material into one day – CT concepts, drawing, and even obstacle avoidance. The teacher’s love of drawing shapes was unconstrained by mere paper!
There are countless moving pieces to making a trip like this a success, and I’d like to thank the team at Constellations, especially Yolanda Payne, Chardé Brown, and La’Isla Emeruem, as well as Lawanda Cummings and the rest of the staff at the Virgin Islands Institute for STEM Education Research and Practice (VI-ISERP). Lastly, I want to provide a thank you and shout out to my workshop co-facilitator Chidike Iromuanya. Chidike has a special talent for connecting with teachers while understanding and communicating technical information – which is probably why he has a degree in electrical engineering AND teaches kindergarten.
The Pathfinders Summer Institute in the Virgin Islands was a beginning: dozens of teachers now have the tools and resources to do physical computing and project-based learning in their classrooms. We’re looking forward to continuing to support these teachers and their community for years to come!