It’s an international effort that may be unique: Students in the United States and Canada are working together to design 3D–printed, portable, battery-powered, rechargeable lanterns that students in Uganda and the Dominican Republic, who do not have reliable access to electricity, will field test. This isn’t an act of charity, it’s a “global collaboration to use kids’ unique talents and technology to make the world a better place,” says Tracey Winey, media specialist at Preston Middle School in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“The premise of the program is everybody has different talents,” she continues. “It’s not one group serving another. Each [group] is contributing unique talents to make a successful program. We have laid a foundation that everybody’s voice is important.”
The groups include students at Preston Middle School; Riverview High School in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada; the Care and Hope through Adoption and Technology (CHAT) House in Uganda; the Dominican Republic; and Pheasey Park Farm Primary School and Children’s Centre in Walsall, United Kingdom.
At Preston Middle School, students in the One Million Lights Club visit Winey’s media center before and after school and during lunch to work on the project. Along with Winey and John Howe, the school’s vice principal, they have Skyped with CHAT House students to learn more about their particular needs for the portable lights and shared their designs with the Riverview students. The CHAT House students also will field test the lights designed and built in Colorado. Winey says the CHAT House students will check the circuits to make sure they work and track how long the lights last, how many cranks are needed to charge the battery for how many minutes of light, whether the light is strong enough, how long batteries must be plugged into solar panels to be fully charged, and more. Their feedback will help the Preston students improve their designs.
“One byproduct [of the project] is light, but another is to foster global collaboration…[while] creating philanthropy in our kids,” explains Winey. “Our kids learn so much content through this program. This isn’t a class; my kids come before school, after school. Kids are motivated because they are curious and they know their work matters.”
And it does. While speaking with the CHAT House students, Winey’s students learned they wanted handheld lights so they would be able to identify predatory animals and other threats when they left the main CHAT House building to visit outhouses during the night. Her students also learned that while CHAT House has a generator for reliable light inside the orphanage, most of the surrounding village does not, which could lead to resentment. Sharing rechargeable lights with their neighbors would help build a stronger sense of community.
At Riverview High School, science teacher Ian Fogarty shares the story of Maria and Hailey with his students. In August 2014, one of his students met the two girls in the Dominican Republic. They both dream of becoming doctors, but struggle to study after dark when their home only has electricity a few nights a week.
“Engineering seems to be a nice mix of purposeful science,” Fogarty says. Instead of getting “lost in our science lab,” he adds, philanthropic engineering projects provide concrete answers to why students learn about circuits. “Now they are learning to help somebody. I tell them, ‘Here’s their story, here’s how we can help.’ It gives content real-life purpose…The motivation is ‘We’re going to learn this to help somebody; if we don’t learn, someone is going to suffer.’ There is no middle ground; either it works or it doesn’t.”
Fogarty was able to add the light project to his existing curriculum. “It wasn’t a big change in the classroom. It was a change of focus. We can do the same tests as before,” he explains. His ninth-grade students do the same circuitry labs as in previous years, but do them with Maria and Hailey in mind. In his 10th-grade Broad Based Technology course, students use Google SketchUp to draw cases for the flashlights, while 11th- and 12th-grade physics students go into greater depths working with electronics and microprocessors. The Science 12 class, which “blends the borders [among] science, humanities, and language arts,” also examines the role of the local culture, investigating how they will get the lights to Maria and Hailey (and other students in similar situations), he relates.
“Engineering is the last gender gap, I think,” remarks Fogarty. “In this project, eight out of 12 students are girls. Three [female] students not in class are checking in weekly. They tell me, ‘We’re invested in it now. We want to see it through.’ One of the goals is gender equity in science moving forward; this seems to be helping that out quite a bit.”
The Fort Collins and Moncton students shared their designs with one another electronically. Winey explains the Moncton students knew more about circuitry than her middle school students did, and her students had more experience in virtual collaboration and 3D printing. In addition to collaborating on circuitry with Winey’s students in Colorado, Fogarty’s students worked across the Atlantic Ocean with Gareth Hancox’s fourth-grade students at Pheasey Park Farm Primary.
“My students taught those students about circuits and sent them a design task [to create] cases. Each kid spent five [to] eight hours of [his or her] own time designing lights. They pitched their designs to us and really challenged what my high school kids were thinking…They’ve helped us with brainstorming design,” says Fogarty. The elementary students’ designs included glow-in-the-dark cases, dimmer switches, and options to make the lights wearable.
Hancox notes this “revolutionary approach to learning…between elementary and high school students on different continents has been a giant leap forward in learning. Both sets of students had interesting, sensible, and exciting ideas on how best to approach the problem of supplying light to students in the Dominican Republic. What happened next was true collaboration; the younger students presented their designs over a Skype video presentation with immediate feedback from Canada. Ideas however ‘out of the box’ were discussed, and certain elements were further developed until a final design was agreed upon by all the students.” He adds that it has been incredibly important for his students “to work on a real project with definitive outcomes that will change the lives of others.”
Fogarty and Winey also tapped into resources in their local communities. He has had an engineer “loaned” from a technology company check that the students were designing with safety in mind, and a university professor visit while students worked on circuit boards. Volunteers from Intel worked with Winey’s students on soldering, and the school’s computer science and electronics teacher checked students’ circuits. “The beauty of it is that people who want to come, come. It’s truly motivated by people…serving for the sake of serving,” Winey says.
UNESCO has declared 2015 the Year of Light to raise awareness about light-based technologies and how they can be used to promote sustainable development and resolve energy, education, agriculture, and health challenges. Winey and Fogarty hope more educators will be inspired to make philanthropic engineering part of their curriculum.
With Howe, they launched a website, www.philanthropic-engineering.org, to share how they have made creating reliable light sources for others central to their students’ learning experiences. Fogarty hopes to eventually add more philanthropic engineering materials—such as designs for an automated greenhouse a group of his students have been working on to support a community garden—to the site.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.
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