Expert Viewpoint

When Schools Use Online STEM Programs, Everyone Wins

When our district shut down during the pandemic, we needed a way to keep students engaged with hands-on learning even though they weren’t on campus. I learned about the CoderZ League competition and the Amazon Future Engineer Title 1 Grant scholarship opportunity (which would fund the school’s investment in the online STEM and robotics programming platform) and signed up.

Shortly after, we learned that we qualified for the scholarship and received the licenses we needed for two different robotics challenges. I really liked that the program only required an Internet connection — no physical robots necessary — and also how well the curriculum was organized and aligned with my goals as a teacher.

As a former software training and network technician, my goal is to introduce students to some of the realities of working in IT and help prepare them for success in the workplace. Our coding platform helps me do this by:

  • Filling in the learning gaps related to traditional textbooks and curriculums. The notion that you can associate coding with a company like Amazon that already has high-tech in its bloodstream gives students a big advantage. For example, our textbooks don’t even mention cloud computing; the word isn’t even in there. Yet cloud has become a major part of the IT world over the last few years. Our coding platform helps me teach the relevant, updated skills that students can put right on their resumés.
  • Not giving students all of the answers. The other checkbox that I got out of our coding platform was the idea that it offers no “set solutions” to problems. So while a solution may be given, there are always alternate ways to solve the problem. This is important to me because I want my kids to know that there isn’t always a “one set” answer to everything. This really stokes their critical thinking skills and helps them come up with more open-ended solutions.
  • Giving us the tools we need, without the hardware or robots. There was no need for specialized hardware or software; all we need is a browser, an Internet connection and a Chromebook or computer. This can be an issue for anyone who has a spotty Wi-Fi connection at home, but in general it works for everyone. As an educator, I don't want to be the tech administrator. I'm a tech guy so yes, I can do it, but I'd rather focus on teaching. I'd rather focus on solving where a student is struggling and giving them some guidance.
  • Taking the hesitancy out of STEM. Each new school year brings a new crop of promising students to Hutch Tech, where I don’t always have a good gauge on those youngsters’ current skill and knowledge levels. Because our coding platform provides a structured curriculum for students in grades 4-12 meant, I can fairly quickly determine where the students are and where they need to be. Then, the platform plots a chart for success — based on “missions” that they accomplish one by one — as the kids move down their respective paths. And because the platform is collaborative, even those who are hesitant about diving into the challenges can see how others are doing it and follow suit.

Once they see the older students move through the maze, the younger ones see how much fun it is and want to get into it. The platform changes their demeanors and gives them the confidence to do it. It takes the hesitancy out of trying something new.

About the Author

Kelvin Hux is a CTE technology teacher at Hutchinson Technical High School in Buffalo, New York.