Recently we interviewed Lisa Hamlin, a teacher at in Flushing, Queens, New York City. Lisa has been engaged with the TryEngineering Together program for the past two years, both years with a third-grade class of thirty-two students. Here is what Lisa has to say.
What is the value of eMentors for your elementary students?
LISA: eMentors are valuable on so many different levels. My students were so excited to be writing to engineers and the fact that they were grownups made it even that cooler. Because the students are corresponding, they are writing for purpose, which both motivates and excites them.
My students had the opportunity to ask questions to the eMentors. It started out where they would ask questions about the articles that they were reading. But my students, like most elementary students, are inquisitive and they ask questions about everything. What makes a light bulb light up? What makes an elevator go up and down? And it was totally out of the scope of what we were doing at the time. But the eMentors always did their best to answer the questions for them, which was great.
But I think that the most important thing is that through this program, the students learn that engineering is not just a school subject. It is actually a career. It’s something that people do and that there are so many different types of engineers. I don’t think they ever realized that prior to the program. I know every year after this program a bunch of my students say that they would also like to be engineers when they grow up, which I think is awesome.
TryEngineering Together It’s just a great program. My students formed a real bond with their mentors. And at the end of the year, the students are always sad to have it end.
Note: Lisa’ video response to this question can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sS2WPQGrdio
How does TryEngineering Together eMentoring program impact the way you teach, and your students learn?
LISA: The results have been eye-opening for me. I’m always amazed at how creative the students are and how they’re able to look at a problem from so many different perspectives. A lot of times it’s ways that I never would have even imagined. So, I think that’s really exciting. And I think it is also helped me become better at framing my questions. I find ways to make the questions more open ended to give the kids a little bit of a nudge along the way if they get stuck. But a lot of times they just rely on each other and they really don’t need me at all, which is even better.
And then as for the way that it is impacted my students, there’s just so many different ways. The first thing would be their engagement. Engagement is through the roof. In my classroom, whenever we are doing the hands-on component of the program, the classroom is humming. The kids learn to work collaboratively. Sometimes I set them up in groups. Sometimes I let them choose their own groups. And through this, I think they’ve learned how to work together as a team. They have learned that sometimes they have to compromise, that their ideas are good, but sometimes somebody might have a better idea and they learn to share.
Also, they’ve become better problem solvers. I know in the beginning, when we first started, everybody wanted to jump right into the design phase of the projects that they were working on. Everybody wanted to build a cool contraption and they didn’t want to do the research and they didn’t want to do the planning or the sketching. They just wanted to jump in and build something. But they found out that as they were going along that that did not work out very well for them. So they learned why there is an engineering design process and they understood better why you need to do the research in the beginning and you need to plan things out carefully because it just makes things run smoother.
Also, in the very beginning, they used every material under the sun. It didn’t matter what it was. If it was there, they wanted to use it in their projects. And then they learned over time that the constraints that were in some of these projects forced them to rethink what they were doing and think a little bit smarter. They had to think about what they needed.
And it added a math component. Sometimes it was a price associated with the total cost of the project and that made them rethink their projects. It just made them think more closely. And, I think it’s also transferred into some of the other areas in school. For example, in their writing, they realized now that writing is also a process, just like the engineering design process. You start out with an idea and brainstorm and then you draft and then you go back, and you revise. And it really kind of aligns with the engineering design process. So, it’s something that they’re going to take forward with them all throughout the curriculum.
Note: Lisa’ video response to this question can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVLD1R9YUhY)
How have parents and administrators reacted to the TryEngineeringTogether program?
LISA: Parents love the program. I’ve had them come to me at parent teacher conferences and thank me for putting the program in place. They said that normally or in the past their kids would come home from school and it was a typical third grader. How was your day? Fine. What did you do? Nothing. But once we put the program in place and they were working on these projects and they were building things and testing things when they came home, they were excited to talk about it and they wanted to share what they were doing in class. And it gave the parents a little bit more of a vision of what was going on in the classroom.
And it even extended at home because kids wanted to do things at home as well. The kids were building robots and they were building simple machines and all kinds of different things. So much that we implemented an engineering show-and-tell day on Friday in the classroom. And the kids would bring in things that they did at home to share with everyone else.
Also, I invited parents into the classroom on days when we were doing the hands-on activities within TryEngineering Together. Initially, in the very beginning of the year, it was kind of to give me a few extra sets of hands because in the beginning the kids had a lot of questions. They wanted us to help them with everything. But as the year went on, parents came in more just to watch what was going on because the kids became more and more independent. And the parents were always amazed at how well they worked together, how independent they were, that they were able to go and get the materials that they wanted. They would try things on their own without asking for help all the time. I think it really strengthened that home school connection for us.
And then as far as the administrators go, my principal absolutely loves the program. And the reason I know well, there are two reasons. One is she’s always asking me to share with other faculty members, seeing if they would also join the program, which they have. But also, whenever she had a special visitor, if she was being observed, for example, she would always bring those people into our classroom to watch the class and action. And to showcase how the kids were running the show and it was just so impressive.
Note: Lisa’ video response to this question can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T3Xj4PVfAXs
How does TryEngineering Together fit into your classroom curriculum and how much of your time does it take?
LISA: It fit beautifully. It really does not take a lot of time. I would say probably forty-five minutes to an hour in a week. Really, the components of the program are things that we do in our class every day anyway.
Within the program the students are reading high quality nonfiction articles and reading is something that every teacher does with their class every day.
And writing – we write every day. And within the TryEngineering Together program each student regularly writes letters to their eMentors. This is writing with an authentic purpose. They’re writing to someone and they’re getting a response back. So, it really fits in with the curriculum.
The program is set up so well that the articles that the students are reading are broken out by Lexile level. For me, it just makes the job so much easier. I can set a range of articles that I’m going to give the students to read and then I let them choose. And they have some choice in the topic that they are reading. But I’m also able to control the level of the reading so that I know that it’s not too difficult or it’s not too easy for them. It’s something that’s really helpful.
And for my students, most of my third graders prefer to read fiction over nonfiction, but these [nonfiction] articles are really engaging, and it helps me balance that fiction nonfiction ratio as we’re supposed to be 50- 50. And then the students are talking about it as I have them in working groups. So if students are reading similar articles, I have them discuss it with each other. I’ve set up a blog where they can write to each other and add on comments to each other outside of the outside of the eMentor letters. So, the students are also speaking to each other and it helps with their speaking and their listening skills.
These are all things that we are doing in class anyway, so it really does not take a whole lot of extra time.
Note: Lisa’ video response to this question can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0ihaCdNwwE
What happened to the TryEngineeringTogether program when you had to switch to virtual learning earlier this year?
LISA: It was one constant in a time when everything else was changed. The rest of our classroom was turned upside down, but the TryEngineering component stayed the same and they were able to use it without any changes.
It was something that made the transition smoother for us. Everything was online from the beginning of the year. The students were very comfortable with the platform they were writing to their engineers. Their eMentor letters were all online. All the articles are online. So, it was pretty much seamless.
So, it was perfect for them. And even the challenges used mostly materials that you can find at home, nothing crazy in paper, paper clips, rubber bands, string cardboard things that people have at home. So we were even able to continue on doing those challenges and they weren’t working with partners in class, but they were able to work with siblings or they were able to do it on their own or with their parents. So, they were still able to do it. It was it was amazing. It made blended learning so much easier for the students.
Note: Lisa’ video response to this question can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tw4O3zKvQNI
What would you say to teachers considering participating in TryEngineeringTogether?
LISA: That’s easy. Do it, just do it. It’s amazing. You’ll have the highest engagement level with your students that you’ve ever had. You will learn from it. They will learn from it.
I was a little trepidation at first because engineering had not really been my thing. But the program makes it so easy. The lessons are all laid out for you. You can use them as is or you can tweak them to make them fit the way that you want them to. But it has been such a rewarding experience and it’s always my students’ favorite part of the year. If you ask them at the end of the year, it’s always TryEngineering.
Note: Lisa’ video response to this question can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sq5iSvaFK7s