Flexibility has been the mode of operating in so many ways during the pandemic. This has certainly been true for teachers. Plans made in 2020 may just be taking shape now, more than a year later. It may seem like a time warp of sorts and it is hard to believe that a year has passed. But some creative teachers haven’t forgotten the ideas they started to put into play last spring. One of those is Tabby Dionne of Brunswick Junior High School. The project she is putting into play involves robots, drones and Arduinos.

If you don’t know what an Arduino is, I didn’t either. It is basically an electronics platform that you can connect to kinds of other inputs like sensors and buttons to then make something happen like turning on a motor or a light. The idea is that the students can learn coding skills and see the results of what they have learned turned into action. The junior high has both a Coding Club and also a Lego Robotics Club with students who are interested in building these skills.

The funding for this project is the result of a $1700 grant that Dionne was awarded in the spring of 2020 from the Brunswick Community Education Foundation, a non-profit education organization that supports innovative educational opportunities for students in the Brunswick public schools. In a typical year, teachers and staff submit applications in January and the grantees are announced in early March with projects beginning right away. 2020 has certainly not been a typical year for anyone including school staff and students.

As a result, the foundation has allowed flexibility in the time frames for spending grant funding in order to allow teachers like Dionne ample opportunity to undertake new projects with their students if and when they are able. Through 2020, the foundation has also operated on a different grant cycle, offering several shorter term Emergency Grants throughout the school year as teaching staff respond to evolving and unexpected needs.

The Robotics Grant was submitted in January of 2020 by Dionne’s colleague, Susan Weddle, who has since retired. At that time, classrooms at the junior high were full of students. Hands-on projects were part of the learning experience and adding new equipment seemed like a good fit. Not long after, however, things shifted as the pandemic hit and everything was put on hold. She decided to wait until there were more opportunities to have students meet together and work together with the new equipment before making the purchases.

Now, she is hopeful that this spring, or possibly this fall, she will be able to have live meetings with the Coding Club and have new gadgets for the students to explore. In the meantime, she is thinking creatively about ways that students might gather in smaller groups like their advisory pods to at least start getting used to the new tools so that they are ready to go when they can meet in larger groups.

She’s also taking this time to plan activities so that she can be off and running when the timing is right.

“We have the potential to reach a lot of students,” says Dionne. “I’m excited to be able to offer some new opportunities to our students to build on their coding skills with some hardware applications. We have the potential to reach a lot of students by rotating groups.”

The grant covers the purchase of four robots that could potentially have eight-to-12 students working with those while other groups work with drones and Arduino kits. She hopes that the new equipment will both help to support the classroom curriculum and provide opportunities for interested students to work on long-term skill building.

In addition to being grateful for the funding and flexibility of the foundation in facilitating this project, Dionne also points to their “coding volunteer extraordinaire,” Lee Applebaum, who has been educating both staff and students about coding. She adds, “We wouldn’t be here without him.”

As we emerge this spring and prepare for the fall, it is wonderful to see teachers like Dionne undertaking creative projects with their students thanks to community volunteers like Applebaum and the financial support of the Brunswick Community Education Foundation. You can learn more about the projects funded by BCEF and how to make a donation if you are able at www.brunswickcef.org. And now you also know what an Arduino is!

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