UWM Hosts Zoo Train Design Review

This past Friday, UWM’s College of Engineering hosted the conceptual design review for students in this year’s Zoo Train Challenge. Teams from 10 area schools presented their ideas to re-work the coal handling process for the Zoo’s steam locomotives.

The Zoo’s current process has train staff manually sift coal into 17 gallon buckets that may weigh 80 to 90 pounds when full. These are then carried over an often slippery, uneven surface where they are staged for use later in the day. When the train stops at the depot to take on passengers, the train crew will hoist and dump these bucket’s into the train’s coal bin, which is close to four feet above ground level. The train team is also concerned with the deteriorating condition of the coal bin and a retaining wall against which coal ash and fines are stored prior to removal.

New Berlin Eisenhower students present their design concepts. (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

At this point in the process, most teams focused on the design of a new coal bin that could keep the coal sheltered from rain, and automating or augmenting the process of sifting and loading coal. Teams presented their designs to review panels that included zoo train operators, staff from We Energies coal handing facility, students and faculty from industrial engineering programs at UWM and MSOE, and engineers with GZA Environmental and Komatsu.

  • Elmbrook Launch

Following each presentation, teams responded to questions and feedback from both panelists and peers from other teams. Both panelists and students in the audience for other presentations also provide written feedback for each team.

Golda Meir students provide feedback on presentation by their peers . (UWM Photo/Elora Hennessey)

Students will use the feedback and ideas they gained from this session to finalize their designs. The final design review for the project will be hosted by MSOE at the end of April.

Nothing interesting happens in a classroom without a teacher willing to say yes, so we are extremely grateful to the teachers who stepped up to get their students involved. Thanks also to all those who helped pull both the project and review session together, and of course, the students who have taken on the challenge!

UWM has a brief write-up of the event here: https://uwm.edu/news/gallery/milwaukee-area-students-create-solutions-for-zoo-train/

Zoo train Schools and Teachers

  • Elmbrook Launch – Ryan Osterberg
  • Golda Meir – Tina Gleason
  • Menomonee Falls – Robert Regent-Smith
  • New Berlin Eisenhower – Devin McKinnon
  • New Berlin West – Bill Trudell
  • Pathways High School – Angelique Byrne/Chris Kjaer
  • St. Joan Antida – Cynthia McLinn/Melissa Peppler
  • St. Thomas More – Emily Pirkl
  • Wauwatosa East – Julibeth Favour
  • West Allis Dottke – Bernie McCarthy

Collab Lab 31: Recap & Notes

Our December Collab Lab focused on student run enterprises. We were interested in the kinds of experiences participants hoped students might gain through participation in a student run enterprise.

Our process for the session took a slightly different approach, starting with how we wanted to students to talk about their experience. Our goal was statements that demonstrate a high level of engagement, but are also evocative enough that we could start to imagine how a student run enterprise might foster such an experience.

The initial brainstorming process generated a long list of experience statements, including:

  • “I worked really hard because the results really mattered”
  • “This program helped me find my passion.”
  • “The work here is important to me personally.”
  • “I’m glad I can be myself, express my mind freely.”
  • “I got to know myself better.”
  • “I grew as a person.”
  • “It was my favorite class ever.”
  • “I never thought I could do this.”
  • (with pride) “This is my project!”
  • “I chose to stay because of this.”
  • “I was able to make decisions that allowed me to take risks and learn from mistakes to help our business be more successful.”
  • “I learned how to fail.”
  • “There are real consequences for my actions in this enterprises.”
  • “I felt more empowered than ever.”
  • “This experience allowed me to really own my learning and let me take something I am interested in to a level I couldn’t have done without this experience.”
  • “I have a voice and I have value.”
  • “I understand my role.”
  • “I am proud of what exists here.”
  • “I am valuable to this business.”
  • “This experience helped me see how a business could not only help me but help the community.”
  • “The experiences I’ve had make me think about what I can do to help my community.”
  • “This experience allowed me to grow as a student leader and collaborate with others.”
  • “I have a better understanding of money, how it is created, and whether or not it has value.”
  • “I used the skills I acquired to further my knowledge and abilities.”
  • “I remembered doing this activity in class and could apply the technique learned to help myself.”
  • “This helped me learn how to apply my skills in the real world.”
  • “As a person, it made me make better decisions.  As a member of my community it made me open my eyes and grow up.”
  • “It helped me figure out what I want to do with my life.”

With that list in hand, we asked participants to form small teams to talk through ideas for how a student run enterprise might help students have one or more of those experiences. Our second process change was to have these ideas expressed as “What if we…” questions. We wanted to see if that led to more expansive thinking. Here’s what they came up with:

Individuality Initiative

We hope students might say…

  • “I learned to fail”
  • “This program helped me find my passion”
  • “I have a voice. I have value.”

What if we…

  • created an environment where students weren’t as fearful of failing, but instead were encouraged to learn from their failures ;
  • created a survey or interview process to identify appropriate enterprises and their roles within them;
  • encouraged an education system that catered to helping students find their passion instead of telling them what they should be?

Failing with Open Minds

We hope students might say…

  • “I learned to fail”
  • “I found my passion”

What if we…

  • allowed kids to fail;
  • allowed kids to pursue their passion and explore themselves;
  • sourced innovation from kids?
  • encouraged all to fail of front of an authentic, receptive audience with an open mind while pursuing a curiosity which can become a passion after taking a risk?

Sustainable Futures/Business with an Impact

We hope students might say…

“This experience connects passion to community and allows us to thing about our impact”

What if we…

  • challenge them to make a product or service that helps the environment or community;
  • challenges them to create a business or product that reduces their impact on the environment;
  • create a business that would help their specific neighborhood issue?

Change Agent

We hope students might say…

“I feel more empowered than ever”

What if …

  • this purpose already means something to me;
  • I am interested to lead;
  • we make the community better?

Milwaukee Made

We hope students might say…

“It was so great to work with other students of all ages and to make money and learn how to be successful in a business.”

What if we…

  • break down barriers to students creating a business;
  • we worked with an elementary school, high school, and college to create a store/experience for students to learn from each other to make a real business;
  • raised confidence and creativity through working with college professors and students in collaboration;
  • used the new Marquette space in Schlitz Park to sell the produces of student enterprises and employ high school students to work in the store/paid students for the products they sell;
  • collaborate with Marquette, MATC, Pathways High & Golda Meir to do so?

Try – Fail – Reflect (repeat)

We hope students might say…

“I learned how to fail.”

What if we…

  • take time to reflect after failure;
  • normalized failure;
  • push students outside of their comfort zone?

Thanks to The Commons for providing the space and to our featured participants for sharing their expertise and ideas:

Que El-Amin Co founder Young Enterprising Society

Claire Friona — Co-founder of Agricycle Global

Jill Hughes — Senior Business Academy instructor, Menomonee Falls High School

Owen Raisch — Associate Director, Student-Run Business Program at Marquette University

Collab Lab 30: Recap & Notes

Our November Collab Lab focused on opportunities to engage students around green infrastructure. We asked participants to brainstorm ideas around different types of green infrastructure as they are designed, installed or in service, using the inventory provided within the City of Milwaukee’s Green Infrastructure Plan. From there we paired up educators with representatives from industry, higher-ed, non-profits, and local government and had them flesh out a specific idea in greater detail.

Here’s what they came up with:

Identify targets sites for green infrastructure

Identify vacant lots in the students’ neighborhood to active and install stormwater trees, gardens, community art.

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain gardens
  • Stormwater trees
  • Native landscaping
  • Regenerative stormwater conveyance
  • Greenways & land conservation

Phases targeted:

  • Design
  • Installation

Desired experience for students:

  • Mapping GIS
  • Think about neighborhood & community
  • This is worth it!
  • Evidence and argument
  • Budgeting and finance
  • Understanding different land use/space factors
  • History of the area, why a particular lot is vacant
  • Cultural experience of neighborhood as an influence to art
  • Durability of art

What students will need:

  • Mapping software
  • Data
  • Facilitator/guides to support — experts, & exemplars
  • Documentation and presentation skills

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • UWM School of Architecture & Urban Planning
  • Youth Council @ City Hall
  • Pocket parks tour

How students might share their work:

  • Video
  • Podcast
  • Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
  • Story Map
  • Social media/website
  • Share with community service organizations, the experts that helped them.
  • Storytelling– “What did I learn”

Art within Native Landscaping

Design art projects within a native landscape

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Native Landscaping

Desired experience for students:

  • Cross curricula – art/science/math
  • Exploring new things
  • Youth voice/leadership
  • New materials
  • Mentoring
  • Culture

What students will need:

  • Guidance/leadership to understand and get excited
  • Research on native landscapes, sustainable materials (what they are, why they are important)
  • Location, calendar, transportation

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Partner with college students
  • Landscape/gardening experts

How students might share their work:

  • Community grand opening, with presentation by youth
  • Garden Gallery (art) night

Low tech watering systems

Create olla pots or other system to water gardens when students/volunteers may not be available to do so.

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain barrels & cisterns

Phases targeted:

  • Design
  • Installation
  • In Use

Desired experience for students:

  • Research the history of olla pots
  • Design a system where rain barrels fill the pots (how many rain barrels?)
  • Calculate how much water might be captured
  • Determine the size of pots that might be necessary for a particular garden or space
  • Monitor gardens to make sure the system is working
  • Compare performance at different times of year
  • Evaluate how the long the system can run without support
  • Calibrate the outflow rate from rain barrels so that it is most effective

What students will need:

  • History of olla pots & agriculture
  • Math — planning for the # of pots for the area
  • Science — expected rainfall for the area, ecology, human impact
  • Communication skills — share what they did
  • Reading & writing
  • Arts — decorating barrels, making their own pots @ schools with kiln [can we make our own rain barrels?]

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Community connections for support in monitoring
  • Environmental engineers
  • fresh coast guardians from MMSD
  • Teens Grow Greens for different ideas on irrigation
  • Pottery infrastructure

How students might share their work:

  • video story
  • Present @ Science Strikes Back? [Escuela Verde?]
  • Share after a full growing season for data collection
  • Share publicly — news, radio, social media, USDA

Butterfly Garden

Reclaim paved area of “playground” for stormwater management and wildlife habitat restoration.

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain gardens
  • Native landscaping
  • Bioswales
  • Depaving
  • Soil Amendments

Phases targeted:

  • Design
  • Installation
  • In use

What students should experience:

  • Design process — native plants, permaculture, pollinator habitat, education of younger students
  • Self directed personalized learning

What students will need:

  • Research skills
  • Curiosity
  • Information sources
  • Access to professionals/experts

How students might share their work:

  • Photo voice
  • Signage
  • Newsletters & written media

Permeable paving meets math

Use installation of permeable paving as a chance to exercise mathematical thinking.

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Permeable paving

What students should experience:

  • Apply math concepts (geometry, algebra, etc) when designing permeable walkway through a park
  • Art, design, science of materials
  • Exploration of career paths
  • Presentation of findings

What students will need:

  • Access to practitioners
  • Manipulation/manufacturing of materials
  • Best practices for fitting pieces together
  • Permeable paving vs alternatives
  • Cost data for possible choices — installation, maintenance, long term costs

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Practitioners: non profits, contractors, college student mentors
  • MMSD
  • Artists
  • Landscapers
  • Tours of UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, GWC, MMSD, etc.)

How students might share their work:

  • Green Students Conference
    • Opportunity for students across schools/districts to present GI projects to each other
    • Green job fair — in part, the conference could be funded by exhibitors (engineers, landscapers, etc.) who do a job fair

GI Scavenger hunt

Inventory and map green infrastructure within students’ community; identify where water is coming from; find as many examples as possible, create a map using GIS software

What students should experience:

  • The possibilities that exist in different areas
  • Problem solving using mapping software
  • Ability to visualize things on a map

What students will need:

  • Mapping software and an introduction to using it
  • General location for finding green infrastructure
  • Lesson on green infrastructure installations and interventions

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Students who did bigger project

How students might share their work:

  • Story map

Water quality assessment

Assess the water quality in the local community

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain barrels & cisterns
  • Rain gardens
  • Soil Amendments

What students should experience:

  • Data analysis
  • Hands on development of project
  • Ownership & involvement
  • Success & Impact

What students will need:

  • Space
  • Native plants
  • Raspberry Pi computer
  • Types of soil
  • Types of compost
  • Gravel
  • Sensors for moisture/contamination
  • Water quality test kits

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Upham Woods — digital observation kits
  • Sweetwater – Adopt A Storm Drain
  • River Keepers
  • Plastic Free MKE

How students might share their work:

  • Social media
  • Murals
  • Logos
  • Mottos
  • Peer to peer education — teach others to continue project
  • Brand it
  • Give it legitimacy

Greening Alleys

Create a list of priorities for green alleys near a school, identify and collect the data to use in prioritizing the alleys.

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Green streets and alleys

What students should experience:

  • Surveying the neighborhood
  • Identifying improvements and analyzing lowest cost estimates of putting in improvements
  • Communication of survey, improvements,

What students will need:

  • Access to expertise
  • Computers/data sets
  • Estimation software/templates

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • MMSD — Lisa Sasso, Bre Plier, Nadia Vogt
  • DPW — Nader Jabber
  • WDNE — Ben Benninghoff, Samantha Katt
  • Civil Engineers — Justin Hegerty (Reflo), Kara Koch (SSE)
  • Communications specialist

How students might share their work:

  • Entering the project in a competition
  • Via website/communication pieces they design
  • Presenting at a conference
  • Presenting to politicians/city administrators

Intervention as Art

Create an environmental solution that is a form of art

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain barrels & cisterns [start here but then see where it may connect to something else]

What students should experience:

  • Allow students to develop creative problem solving, apply multiple disciplines (math, science, etc.) in order to create a solution
  • Allow student to assess the financial components/cost of implementing the art

What students will need:

  • Location to meet
  • Access to technology and materials
  • Sample size materials to create prototype of artwork
  • Transportation
  • Design expertise (art coaches/artists)
  • Self determination

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Artists
  • Engineers
  • Government officials & leaders
  • Foundations
  • Contractors (in trades)

How students might share their work:

  • Social media
  • Press engagements
  • Unveiling events
  • Presentations

GI target map

Map neighborhood to identify opportunities to install green infrastructure

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain barrels & cisterns
  • Native landscaping
  • Bioswales
  • Green streets & alleys
  • Soil amendments

Phase targeted:

  • Design

What students should experience:

  • Gain understanding of neighborhood and existing conditions
  • Gain understanding of community stakeholders
  • Build researching skills (reputable data)
  • Become informed skeptics
  • Gain understanding of types & applications for green infrastructure

What students will need:

  • Background in types of GI
  • Mapping support — map individual neighborhoods, add all to larger map
  • Critical thinking/perseverance
  • People skills — coaching/modeling
  • Arrange stakeholder meetings/presentations
  • Watershed locations

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Reflo
  • Eco Office
  • Environmental Engineers
  • SFS
  • Community organizations in neighborhood

How students might share their work:

  • Social media posts
  • Health fair at North Division
  • MPS STEM Fair

Heat Islands

Monitor/change heat island effect through interactive materials

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain gardens
  • Native landscaping
  • Bioswales
  • Stormwater trees
  • Depaving
  • Green streets & alleys
  • Greenways & land conservation
  • Green roofs

Phase targeted:

  • In use

What students should experience:

  • Gain an appreciation for environmental awareness
  • Visually see how GI can reduce heat island effect

What students will need:

  • Thermal imaging – drone
  • Students map with “hot spots”
  • Identify areas that would benefit from green infrastructure
  • What could be done– trees plants, gardens
  • See how different GI might reduce heat

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Engineering firms with surveyors
  • College students who work with GIS

How students might share their work:

  • Presentation to town, city, community
  • Design plan
  • From the areas identified, have students go to companies to implement or advertise their action plan

Designing School Building Projects

Allow students to design landscape areas; promote mentor-ship to have older students work with younger students; during construction, kids can monitor waste vs recycled materials

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain gardens
  • Native landscaping
  • Stormwater trees
  • Soil amendments

Phase targeted:

  • Design
  • Installation
  • In use

What students should experience:

  • Sense of ownership, cooperation, achievement
  • Growing consumable product
  • Science

What students will need:

  • Planting science and how to nurture
  • Planting buddies

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Contractors
  • Landscapers
  • Engineers
  • Business relationships for recycling
  • Farmers

How students might share their work:

  • Through food on table
  • Science & math through recycling
  • Personal development through succeeding in the process

Watershed Challenge

How can we positively effect the watershed in a way that will create buy in and support from the community

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain barrels & cisterns
  • Rain gardens
  • Stormwater trees
  • Soil amendments

Phases targeted:

  • Design

What students should experience:

  • Career connections
  • Get out in the field
  • Community connections – picking up trash connected to effects on watershed, talking to community, brainstorming community problems
  • Urban water cycle – treatment plant
  • Science/environmental connection — labs to “see it”
  • Interdisciplinary — data, writing, technology

What students will need:

  • Background knowledge– getting off campus, maps science
  • Access to to local experts
  • Community connections — talking to people in neighborhood, observing the location
  • Structure/system for the design part of the project

Who students should meet as part of the effort:

  • Water school
  • Washington Park Urban Ecology Center
  • Storm Water Solutions
  • Engineers that design infrastructure — public & private
  • Go to a school that did a similar project
  • Groundworks MKE
  • Milwaukee Water Commons
  • Reflo
  • MMSD (Christina Taddy)
  • River Keeper
  • Plastic Free MKE
  • Sweetwater (Adopt a Storm Drain)
  • Upham Woods

Artful Capstone

Bring math, science, and art together for artful landscaping solutions; understanding the design process

Green infrastructure targeted:

  • Rain barrels & cisterns
  • Permeable pavement
  • Green Roofs [hotels & apartments]

What students should experience:

  • Awareness of environment
  • Seeing project through to completion
  • Impact on community
  • Puzzle solving
  • Design process
  • Connecting things to their everyday life
  • Opportunities to see career options

What students will need:

  • Time
  • Parental support
  • Access to opportunities
  • Mentoring
  • Inspiration
  • Pragmatic examples
  • Connections to their lives
  • Opportunity to take risks

Who students should meet as part of this work:

  • Mentors
  • Government officials
  • Home owners
  • Community members

How students might share their work:

  • Authentic audience
  • Other students around the world through
    • Tik Tok
    • 20 20
    • 15s Film
    • Pachakucha

Thanks to The Commons for providing the space and to our featured participants for sharing their expertise and ideas:

Catherine Bronikowski — Math Dept. Chair, North Division High School

Justin Hegarty — Executive Director
Lisa Neeb — Green Schools Project Manager
Reflo – Sustainable Water Solutions

Kara Koch — Senior Project Engineer,  Stormwater Solutions Engineering

Linda Reid — Principal,  Water 365

Erick Shambarger — Director of Environmental Sustainability, City of Milwaukee

Rosheen Styczinski — Principal/Landscape Architect, New Eden Landscape Architecture

James Wasley — Professor, UWM School of Architecture & Urban Planning


MATC Students Put Zoo Train on the Map

While MATC students were doing fieldwork to create a survey of the coal handling area for our Zoo Train Challenge, they took the time to shoot some 3D photos. Those images are now available on Google Maps, and give a good look at the site our Zoo Train students are focused on.

To view other images in the series, pull up the Zoo on Google Maps, and click the icon of the little person in the lower right corner of your browser

Collab Lab 29 – Recap & Notes

Our 4th season of Collab Labs kicked off on October 10th with a focus on building skilled trades talent.  We began the discussion by building an inventory of the skills we’d like to see students develop. These fell into two broad categories:

Technical Skills

  • Design Skills
  • Read blueprints & technical drawings
  • Fine motor skills/hand-eye coordination
  • Math and measurement
  • Budgeting/Understanding job costs
  • General understanding of construction trades
  • Equipment/resource planning

Soft Skills

  • Creativity/Innovation/Problem solving
  • Fail Fast
  • Safety
  • Ability to take constructive criticism
  • Ability to take direction
  • Self Advocacy
  • Self discipline/integrity/follow through/show up ready to work
  • Self confidence
  • Determination/grit
  • Collaboration/Interpersonal skills within a team
  • Communication skills
  • Ability to listen
  • Willingness to learn/ask thoughtful question

From there we asked each discussion group to talk through experiences that do or could provide opportunities to build those skills. Here’s what they came up with:

  • Build2Learn Camp $500 stipend for summer workshop
  • European model – apprentices
  • Engage employers – job shadow
  • Inspire/Awe – Makerspace Home Depot creative space
  • Intentionally incorporate soft skills into lessons
  • Provide high interest projects
  • Bring industry speakers into the classroom
  • Real world applications with purpose – e.g. 3D prosthetics
  • Mentorships
  • Teamwork: moving a project to completion
  • Presenting/exhibiting craft work
  • Building confidence with no or low risk simulations.
  • Leverage connections and take them to scale
  • Address skills gaps with “it takes a village” perspective
  • Get professionals into classrooms
    • They can learn from students
    • Talk with students, not down to them

Our final step was to have each group take those ideas, talk through what a program might look like, and share that out with the entire group. Here’s where they landed:

Project Start to finish real world application

  • Build a house
  • Bring in industry
  • Have mentors
  • Engage employers
  • Build soft skills
  • Build technical skills

Goal is to have job ready workers, provide apprenticeships, job opportunities.

Identify industry partner/employer

  • Ask “What do you need from us?”
  • Identify what workforce needs exist
  • Identify training/skills needed

Company sponsored projects

  • Materials or time
  • Interviews of
    • the company
    • the student
  • Interdisciplinary/project based learning
  • Working with other schools/districts
  • Protocols
  • Feedback models – Hard on content/soft on person
  • Leverage technology
    • Skype team meetings
    • Drone/webcams of projects progressing
    • Build excitement about upcoming technologies

Early Hands-on Exposure

  • Youth apprenticeships
  • Out of comfort zone
  • Peer mentorship
  • Self-realization/mediation
  • Options (electives)

Students: Littles – early exposure

Education Workplace: Welcoming anti-racist, data-driven, performance based

What’s needed to move forward: Looking past personal bias, equal access to opportunities, a cultural shift


Industry-owned Youth Apprenticeships

  • IDing under-served population
  • Mapped to skilled trades values and skills
  • Bringing the industry straight to the families

Thanks to CG Schmidt for sponsoring our food and beverages for the evening, The Commons for providing the space, and to our featured participants for sharing their expertise and ideas,

Peter Graven – Earth Science/ Life Science/ Robotics, Deer Creek Intermediate School (St Francis)

Craig Griffie – Technology Education, Brown Deer High School

Tracey Griffith – HR Outreach Manager, Walbec Group

Crystal Marmolejo – Project Engineer, CG Schmidt

Reginald Reed – Founder/CEO, Mindful Staffing Solutions

Josh Rudolf – Scheduling Manager, Mortenson 

Collab Labs Return for 2019-2020!

Our Collab Lab series is back for a 4th season! Join us on October 10th to kick off the series with Collab Lab 29: Building Skilled Trades Talent. The complete schedule for the season is below.

Computational Thinking Interviews

This past spring, through a grant from Northwestern Mutual, we completed a project that identified factors that drive the willingness of teachers and mentors to participate in initiatives aimed at developing computational thinking skills. Here’s a summary of that effort and what we found.


Solid computational thinking skills[1] are useful across domains and provide a key foundation for the development of tech talent. Developing these skills within computer science classes is constrained by several factors:

  • Computer science classes are not widely available, particularly in schools that serve diverse populations.
  • Educators certified to teach computer science are in short supply.
  • There are limited incentives for teachers to pursue certification and few educators do.
  • Computer science classes are largely taught at the high school level. If we want to develop strong computational thinking skills among students, they need exposure to and practice with them throughout their elementary and secondary school years.
  • A strict focus on computer science as the domain where these skills are developed limits the points of engagement for both students and teachers. As a result, it weeds out both students and teachers whose primary interests (at present) lay outside of computer science.

Widespread development of computational thinking (CT) skills will require a different approach— one that can leverage the interests and passions of both students and teachers in domains outside of computer science.

Computational Thinking Interviews

Through a grant from Northwestern Mutual, we interviewed a total of 11 teachers involved with either MPS’s efforts to introduce Project GUTS, SHARP Literacy’s Design Through Code (DTC) program, or TEALS. Recognizing that computational thinking is a perspective new to most teachers and they would benefit from outside support, we also conducted interviews with 10 mentors from the FIRST Robotics and TEALS programs.  Each of these programs provides an opportunity for students to develop computational thinking skills. Apart from TEALS, all are in domains and classes outside of computer science.

We use the lens of Jobs to Be Done to understand how teachers and industry mentors make decisions about where and how to invest their time and energy. Adoption of a useful and effective practice will move no faster than the practice solves a real problem for teachers in the context within which teachers operate. Failure to understand the context within which a teacher might employ a practice and how this practice fits given their other priorities will, at best, slow adoption. At worst, it will lead to active resistance. For mentors, if the chance to guide students in work that can build computational thinking skills does not align with their own goals, pressures, and schedule, they won’t do it.

Findings & Recommendations

“I felt it was my responsibility as an educator to at least learn and bring coding to them”

For teachers, the primary factors which led them to participate in one of the three programs noted above are:

  • Support from their school or district administration
  • A desire to help their students develop coding skills
  • For Project GUTS teachers, a recognition that the tools and curriculum provided a much richer way for their students to explore topics that involve dynamic systems
  • A lower cost to deliver the experience for students
  • Curriculum that fits within their schedule

Factors holding them back from doing more with the programs are a lack of experience with coding, modeling dynamic systems (Project GUTs), or design thinking (DTC).

“I want to help kids do cool, hard things.”

The mentors we interviewed are motivated by a desire to help students build skills–not just in coding, but an ability to work with a team– and to see them succeed in a challenging project. Their willingness to participate is tempered by the obligations they feel towards their colleagues at work– they want to know that the time they spend as volunteers at worst does not impact their team, and at best, makes them a better team member.

Given what we heard over the course of these interviews, we see a number of opportunities for interventions which could support teachers who want to expose their students to computational thinking in general and speed the adoption of Project GUTS in particular.

Engage students in coding as a way to explore or solve problems

“…the interactions of students, the sharing of ideas, are almost more adult.”

Project GUTS provides an opportunity to expose students to coding in ways that allow them to explore ideas and problems in science. The tools provide a way for students to test ideas and lets their curiosity around the topic or problem at hand drive their desire to master the coding required to do so. This approach offers both teachers and students many more possible points of engagement than would a program focused on simply learning how to code.

Leverage teachers’ enthusiasm for Project GUTS

We were surprised by the enthusiasm teachers showed for Project GUTS. Teachers involved with the program recognize its value, can see opportunities where it can be used effectively, and are excited enough by the possibilities that they look to get colleagues involved.

Support teachers who want to do more with Project GUTS

The teachers we spoke with all had specific ideas for the topics they’d like to explore with Project GUTS. Several mentioned a desire to collaborate with colleagues at their own school or to connect with colleagues at other schools working on the same topics. Beyond having additional training or ad hoc support from district specialists, the current set of Project GUTS teachers could benefit from:

  • a program to develop and test models and integrate into curriculum;
  • a network of local practitioners with regular opportunities to meet in person;
  • training opportunities for their colleagues.

Create a mentor pool for Project GUTS teachers

Teachers were not completely confident in their ability to make full use of the tools without additional support. An outside mentor who can bring domain expertise around the systems to be modeled and some sense of how best to do so would provide welcome help.

The time commitment here need not be anywhere near as intensive as that required by TEALS. Having some availability to exchange ideas with a teacher and visit a class a few times per semester when students are working through models would be a valued addition to the support currently provided by colleagues and curriculum specialists within MPS.

Teachers value on-going relationships with mentors and want the same for their students. Having a mentor assigned to a teacher for the duration of a school year is preferable to a pool of volunteers where any one of whom might drop in on an ad-hoc basis. This partnership would be further enhanced if teachers have a chance to work with mentors who interests are strongly aligned with their own.

Demonstrate that the employer values mentors’ work with students

Mentors want to know that the time they spend with students is valued by their employer and that it does not distract from the work their team needs to complete. While mentors recognized that work with K-12 students can provide an opportunity to develop skills they can leverage in the workplace, few of those we spoke with indicated this was recognized by their employer.

Overt signals from the employer that mentorship work is valued as a professional development opportunity by the firm will leave mentors more willing to participate. As examples, a firm might:

  • Provide employer sponsored opportunities for mentors to learn how to effectively engage with students– this would both demonstrate an employer’s commitment to the effort and help mentors be more effective in the classroom
  • Incorporate meaningful student mentorship as a recognized track in building leadership and communication skills for employees
  • Provide opportunities for mentors’ students/teachers to share their work with co-workers. This could come through on-site presentations, newsletter articles, or by encouraging attendance at off-site presentations.

Facilitate deep connections between mentors and the classroom

The desire of teachers for support they can count on, and that of mentors to see growth are more easily satisfied when mentors have an ongoing role with the class or classes they support. Mentors who have built good relationships with the students they work with are an asset to the teacher and allow the teacher to play a higher value role within the classroom.

More information

Want to know explore our findings in greater detail? Our full report detailed report is available here. If you’re interested in leveraging what we’ve found, or helping Milwaukee move forward with any of our recommendations, let us know.

[1]Computational thinking practices:

  • Decomposition: Breaking down data, processes, or problems into smaller, manageable parts
  • Pattern Recognition: Observing patterns, trends, and regularities in data
  • Abstraction: Identifying the general principles that generate these patterns
  • Algorithm Design: Developing the step by step instructions for solving this and similar problems


#PublicMathMKE @ NEWaukee’s Night Market

Family/date night math came to the NEWaukee Night Market last night. Math educators Mary Langmyer and David Temple created opportunities for attendees to solve number puzzles, play with shapes, build nets with Magnatiles, use “shape finders” and participate in our first “street survey”. It was a chance to engage with math (and mathematicians) in playful and creative ways as well as chance to meet others who stopped by for positive math experiences!  All in all, a night of great (and humorous) conversations and learning for everyone!

Can you identify dots that correspond to the following two statements? 1) “My parents dragged me down here for a hamburger, which I didn’t really want.” 2) “We were walking back to our hotel and just stumbled into this.”