Faith Bongiorno began her teaching career as an “art-on-the-cart” educator. But that changed one day when her son told her he wanted to participate in FIRSTⓇ LEGOⓇ League, a robotics program created through an alliance betweenFIRSTⓇ (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and LEGOⓇ Education. Curiosity piqued, she presented the program to her principal, worked to secure funding and stepped up to coach the after-school program.
This newfound passion led Bongiorno to transition to teaching general technology in the classroom and, eventually, robotics. Now, she’s a full-time education implementation specialist for FIRST and still works closely with a number of robotics teams in her area, including some high school seniors who were on her original team nine years ago. And, just like other educators, she’s been working hard to keep kids in the program engaged and safe from afar.
Bongiorno spoke with us about her experience with FIRST, STEM education and navigating remote instruction—as both an educator and parent—during the COVID-19 pandemic.
EdSurge: What challenges are you seeing with remote learning?
Bongiorno: The first is engagement. Being one educator that engages 30 kids online effectively is a challenge. For the students, it’s a challenge to feel comfortable and, as Brené Brown says, to be vulnerable and brave to step out into that arena.
Then there’s connection. We moved our daughter back to face-to-face schooling because she was really struggling with connecting to the teacher. She could not feel safe enough to ask the questions she needed to ask to understand the material being delivered. Connection is challenging for students and educators, but also for parents. We’re all trying to connect through a screen, and that can be an extremely difficult hurdle to cross.
Another challenge we deal with is internet access. We live in a rural area, and our broadband doesn’t always hold. With four kids home virtually learning, I have to plot out who can be on what meeting because, if we have more than two people online at a time, the broadband will cut out. How stressful is that for a student if they are virtually learning and their internet goes out?
Any silver linings?
When you’re in the classroom, there are reminders about homework, quizzes, test reviews, etc. Now, kids have to become more self-sufficient in knowing when these dates are coming up. This has forced my older children to understand that they have to stay on top of things.
I’m also seeing students start to build their own little pods. In my daughter’s math class, the kids started a Discord channel. The teacher has nothing to do with it. A few of them come together to discuss what’s going on in class and utilize Google Whiteboard to share notes. The teachers are loving that the students are learning to self-facilitate and come to class with articulated questions.
The FIRST teams must be facing some challenges, too. How are you keeping yours motivated and engaged?
The teams I work with are virtual right now—we have weekly meetings, and we’re using Discord to stay engaged. The kids are thinking of initiatives. We really want the kids to come up with the ideas because that’s the way to keep them engaged. When the kids think, “These are things that are important in my community right now,” they start driving the bus. Then we’re just providing guidance.
Some of our kids have grandiose ideas that we can’t execute right now, but we can put them in the parking lot until we return to normal. And we’re dealing with some students who are upset that there are no face-to-face robotics competitions, so we encourage them to come up with ideas that will keep it meaningful for them while staying safe.
Another thing we’re seeing in FIRST is collaboration across all the programs. We have teams trying to help other teams virtually. My daughter took a CAD class online this summer that was taught by a team in California. They shared it on our Facebook page and opened it up to all of our FIRST programs free of charge.
How are FIRST teams innovating as they try to deal with what’s going on around them?
We’ve had teams with access to 3D printers printing PPE and getting it to their local hospitals. One team designed a different type of mask holder for doctors that ended up being used at The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The students examined what was out there and the needs of the doctors in that particular unit, and they designed something to fit those medical needs.
Right now, most of the teams I’m working with are trying to examine their community needs—school supplies or technology access for the kids at home; food scarcity has come up a few times. Students are talking to friends and finding out that they don’t have lunch at home or a way to get it. Some teams are looking at homeless populations to see how they are staying safe during COVID.
We are still in the early part of their projects, but they are really starting to dive into examining the needs in their community.
Not everyone has access to FIRST in their schools, especially right now. What sort of STEM resources are available for use at home?
There are tons of resources, but one of the sites that I’m driving friends and family to is FIRST At Home. When COVID hit, our education team immediately knew we had to get these resources out there. We have lessons that can be facilitated by parents with household items, which was an important factor in the design. We put other links in the lessons and on the site for resources from places like the National Science Foundation, Carnegie Mellon, some of our teams and even some YouTube channels.
Do you have any advice for overwhelmed parents who want to incorporate STEM into their children’s lives without adding more pressure?
Try to look at your world through the eyes of a 2- or 3-year-old. Be curious instead of pressured when faced with something you don’t know. Take cooking, for example. There are so many things you can learn by cooking a pie that are STEM-related, from fractions to logic to sequencing.
Think about it from the perspective of a young child and find the magic in the world again. The reality is, you can meet the needs of your kids by just getting on the ground with them and looking at what they’re examining, helping them answer their questions and inspiring them to be curious.
That’s what I would tell parents: Become curious with your kids.
Keep Curiosity Alive at Home and in Class
FIRST was founded more than three decades ago to inspire young people to become science and technology leaders and innovators, ready to solve the world’s greatest challenges—under the idea that when inspiration happens, education follows. Today, their suite of inclusive PreK-12 programs continue helping educators and parents ignite curiosity in their students and further develop the skills and confidence they need to build a better future.
All kids need equitable access to opportunity, relevant mentorship and engagement to build a foundation for a bright future in an ever-changing world. Just as their robotics teams have been innovating to help their communities during this challenging time, the team behind FIRST programs has been innovating to keep STEM inspiration and learning alive for all young people, including the development of free activities for at-home learning and adapted programs that can be carried out across learning environments.