The worst drought to hit southern Africa in 35 years is only expected to worsen this year.
Students in southern Africa are struggling to focus in class and, in some cases, unable to participate in sports. At Chidyamakondo high school in southern Zimbabwe, some of the reigning championship football teams’ best players have dropped out of school to help their families find food[i].
From the classroom to the real-world
The story begins with TI STEM Innovation manager Fred Fotsch. A 28-year teaching veteran, Fred knows firsthand that students are motivated by real-world experiences and now uses his experience to design curriculum using TI products.
“When I design lessons for the classroom, I like for them to have a real-world application,” Fred said. “I like them to be emotionally engaging and have a storyline so when students question, ‘Why do I need to know this,’ they have an answer. I can say, ‘Look, this is a real problem and these are real people.’ If you can find something that relates to a students’ world, then all the better.”
After reading about the drought in Africa in an article in The Guardian, Fred knew that while high school students in the states might not understand the pressing reality of a drought, they can empathize with being unable to attend school and play sports with their friends. It was the perfect making of not only a good lesson plan, but an opportunity to introduce students to hands-on STEM learning through real-world problem solving.
Changing the game
Coincidentally, Fred’s colleagues, Dave Santucci and Harshal S. Chhaya, were seeking to partner with local schools and educators to develop coding groups for students, using the brand-new TI-Innovator™ Hub, a classroom tool that introduces students to coding and engineering design to prepare them for the jobs of the future. In just 10 minutes of lessons, students are introduced to coding and programming.
“Up until now, as we talked to educators and teachers, they all value STEM and they all have been told by their administrators they need to teach programming or coding, but they were trying to figure out how to take the next step. They really don’t know how to get involved with STEM projects,” Fred said. “The Innovator has made coding and programming accessible to teachers who aren’t necessarily experts in that field. Now, teachers can bring an authentic STEM experience to their classroom.”
In early August, Fred, Harshal and Dave met with the team at Garland Independent School District, of which Sachse High School is a part. They shared how the Innovator could offer students new opportunities for coding and programming, all with an easy learning curve for teachers. As a result of that meeting, administrators from the school district informed the team that their students had an interest in integrating all STEM subjects and programming into a single project. But they wanted to do more than just program; they wanted to demonstrate to students how STEM skills can have a positive impact on the world.
Fred’s smart water irrigation idea was the perfect concept.
“We wanted to combine math, science and technology to show our kids how all those areas depend on each other. It is important for our students to know how different professions—from agriculture to design—need to work together in today’s globalized society,” said Jasna Aliefendic, technology applications coordinator on behalf of the Garland school district. “The TI calculators are the perfect tools to bring programming to life. When Dave showed us the Innovator and explained what it can do, it was the selling point to further engage our students in computer science.”
School district officials worked quickly to create a coding club pilot program at Sachse High School. A team of TI mentors, University of Texas at Dallas graduate students, and Sachse teacher and club sponsor, Brian Torres, helped the students build sensors that would monitor factors such as light, temperature, humidity and more. Then, using the Innovator and TI-Nspire™ CX graphing calculators, the mentors explained how writing specific code enables the sensors to inform the program and eventually control the pump actuator based on the sensor reads, ensuring optimal conditions for irrigating land and growing crops amidst a drought.
“While we have been able to do data collection on our calculators for several years now, the TI-Innovator™ Hub adds to the capabilities a way to control objects like motors, pumps, lights, fans and speakers,” said Harshal Chhaya. “That’s brand-new functionality we didn’t have until the TI-Innovator was available. These capabilities were critical to our project because students could then control a pump, vary the speed of the pump and see water flowing – all controlled by a program that they wrote on their calculators.”
The “ah-ha moment”
Until now, the coding club, made up of about 18 high school students, had only ever coded on a computer. The new tool was a catalyst for students, helping them realize how their STEM skills could someday turn into careers that were solving real problems.
“Coding on a calculator was astonishing because up until now, I’d been coding on a bulky computer and now I’m coding on a skinny calculator,” said Nelson Flores, senior at Sachse High School. “It put everything in perspective. I realized how quickly technology is advancing and how we can continue to solve problems and help people by using technology.”
After about three days into the project, students tasted success. All of the sudden, the pump turned on for the first time and students got to see a direct result of their programming. For the first time, they understood how coding on a small calculator could have big results.
“At first, we started with background concepts ― getting use to coding, using the sensors, etcetera,” said Dave Santucci. “Then one day, we got the pump going. Immediately, kids could hear the whirling sound of the pump turning on, and they were really excited about that — it was amazing! The club is scheduled from 2:45 to 3:45 p.m., and on this particular day, we looked up and noticed it was past 4 p.m. They were so engaged. A lot of times, when kids start to get this kind of exposure, they realize programming is something they can and even want to do with their careers.”
Growing the program
The program at Sachse has been so successful that the district hopes to implement the model in other schools. In fact, two middle schools have already launched coding clubs using the Innovator.
“It’s not just curriculum that makes students successful. This project has helped our students develop empathy for people, especially children who are not as fortunate as they are. I think that’s a complete cycle—education, empathy, and social awareness connected through technology.” Jasna said.
Of course, implementing a smart water irrigation system in the real world is much more challenging than creating a prototype in the classroom. But this project has ignited a spark in students and helped them dream big about how they can use technology to change the world and improve lives.
[i] Source: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/apr/21/drought-southern-africa-heavy-toll-students-fainting-malawi-zimbabwe
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