STEM pilot fuses tech, computing, data & social good in Lee’s Summit schools

SensED IOT Program

Think Big Foundation and Cisco launched SensED – a project-based STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education program for middle and high school students – in September with a pilot kickoff at Think Big’s innovation center in the heart of downtown KC.  The program was adopted in four Lee’s Summit schools by ten educators with over 200 students participating.  In honor of finals week, here’s a report-out of our progress so far, the lessons learned and the program’s future pathways.

Why did we do this?

We believe educators need fresh tools to teach digital literacy, programming and emergent technologies.  The SensED IoT program is designed to help educators learn to teach fundamental principles of computer science in innovative and engaging ways.  We believe developing early literacy is critical to ensuring that students not only understand how it works, but see the personal and social impact of their experience, and can connect their education to the abundance of new opportunities within this rapidly expanding field.

What did we do?

SensED opened in pilot form so we could methodically examine the demand, deployment and impact of the program as an MVP at a small-scale over a short-term (semester).  This discovery period has been conducted much like an experiment, with emphasis on feedback, trial and error, iteration and documentation.

How’s it going?

We experienced such optimism and interest from administrators during initial concept talks, we were confident about introducing the program’s pilot framework to teachers .  But even so, we found ourselves surprised by the intense demand from educators.  At the onset, we set out to deploy the program in a single high school – Summit Tech Academy – but teachers are adept at sourcing new ways to engage and excite their students, and before we could say I-O-T – two middle schools and the University of Central Missouri jumped into this pilot in such a big way, we simply couldn’t help but expand our effort to fit around them.

We are pretty geeked up about what teachers have done with it, how they’ve incorporated it into their STEM curriculum, inspired their students to use technology to creatively solve problems, and what the student teams have accomplished so far.  “I was excited from the beginning, and jumped on Google to find out how IoT works in geology and meteorology – and the kids have been loving it,” said Deanna Soukup, 7th grade science teacher at Bernard Campbell Middle School in Lee’s Summit.

What did we learn?

Communication is key.  The more the better.  We offered an introductory session to provide an overview of the program, plus two workshops at multiple school locations that featured demonstrations of real, working sensor-based IoT projects and tutorials on the use of specific tools.  Eventually, we created a forum to engage communications between program facilitators, teachers and mentors via Cisco’s Spark messaging platform.  Early on, we confronted the fact that both design thinking and inquiry-based lessons are not widely known, and added to the learning curve and comfort level of teachers.  We made many lists and took lots of notes so we can improve our processes, better equip teachers and students, empower mentors and augment the curriculum.  Here’s a run-down of the high (and low) lights:

  • Teachers will jump in. All in.
  • Students are hungry for this stuff. And they’re good at it.
  • Students and teachers like seeing projects in action and enjoyed being at the Think Big space.
  • Teachers like structure around resources, training is essential, and they want more of it in modular ways (classes, workshops, work days, tutorials, hands on practice, etc.).
  • Mentors are not enough to bridge the knowledge gap, it’s hard to scale them as inventory and they vary too widely to be a backbone of support.
  • Teachers felt rushed by the timeline and wanted more time to let students come up with ideas before starting the build-out phase.
  • Design thinking and inquiry-based learning are not widely known or practiced in classrooms.
  • Repetition helps.
  • New and emergent technologies are unknown or unpracticed, and teachers want ways to get familiar with the content, technology and tools – time on task is important to build context and comfort.
  • Middle school teachers want to know how IoT works in their subject/curriculum (IoT and geology, astronomy, history, etc.)
  • There’s never enough hardware.

We still have lots of questions.  

Do innovation challenges need boundaries or themes; is it too big of a green field to leave it wide open? What will student outcomes be?  Are we impacting tech and career pathways for students, and giving them transferrable skills?  We have so much more to learn, and future versions of this work must include the research and metrics to know where we’ve been successful and where we have gaps.

Where from here?   

We have opted to continue the pilot term through the 2016 spring semester to allow teachers and students more time to refine their IoT ideas and build their projects for the innovation challenge that will conclude at Demo Day on March 3rd during Think Big Thursdays at Think Big.  This will be a special version of our Collisions & Coffee format, so please save the date and come take a peek at Kansas City’s future IoT leaders and innovators.

We have begun to draft the 2nd generation of SensED with a specific focus on teacher training.  We are exploring a more robust curriculum with the hopes of developing a series of Master-level classes, training camps and professional development/continuing education that will support the the model more effectively with participating schools.  Cisco continues to provide leadership as an industry partner, developing and providing access to mentors and assisting in the curriculum design, skill development and learning outcomes.

How can you help?

About Kari Keefe

Kari is the Executive Director of the Think Big Foundation - educating entrepreneurs and fueling innovation for the design and development of education in smart cities.


  •' Teri Curp says:

    Excellent Post, Kari! I am excited to see that our feedback was heard and taken so seriously! I think you have an excellent grasp on our needs going forward. I look forward to seeing your program grow!

  • Looking forward to the March 3, 2016 SensEd Demo Day! Students have been working hard on their ideas and projects. Can’t wait to see the feedback from the Collison & Coffee atendees.

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