From arduino learner to teacher

Student teaching STEM Academy arduino strand

student-guided stem learningMeet Ian. Ian’s a senior at Essex High School, and he’s not just enrolled in the STEM Academy there, he’s also teaching it.

In this episode of the podcast, research fellow Mark Olofson talks with Ian about how he went from learning about arduinos, to teaching them, and why robotics is so much more fun to build than talk about.


“In middle school I was not sure AT ALL what I was gonna be when I was older. So that’s the interesting thing, with the transition to high school that changed so much.”

Hear about the projects Ian’s been working on inside the STEM Academy and out, how cool it is to make e-textile costumes for school performances and what it’s like to be a student teaching other students STEM. A full transcript of the podcast appears below.

Audrey (narrator): In this episode, research fellow Mark Olofson talks with a senior at Essex High School who is not just taking part in the school’s STEM Academy, he’s actually teaching it. Welcome to The 21st Century Classroom.

In our last episode, math educator Leanne Smith told us about the Essex High School STEM Academy where students can choose to pursue self-directed STEM projects and community internships during the school day.

Leanne: So, there’s the Advisory. We also have a lecture series. So, about once a moth after school somebody comes in, and you need to do 10 of those throughout the course of the 3 years. You need to enroll in the STEM internship class, and do research around your specific career. You go out and do your internship, and then you put all of that together in a digital portfolio.

But one student’s digital portfolio will feature his journey from Arduino learner, to teacher.

Ian: Yeah, so, my name’s Ian. I’m a senior at Essex High School, and I’m a big member of the STEM community here. I’m all about computer science and electronics. And, yeah, that’s my thing: I help out.

This is my first year in The STEM academy. I’m sort of their ‘pilot senior.’ Normally, seniors wouldn’t be in it, I’m actually the only one right now. But, I decided to join after looking at the STEM internship class, and Ms. Smith, she approached me and asked me if I wanted to join up ’cause she knew, you know, I could help out and I could kinda be the experiment. But, I also knew that they’d be doing very interesting stuff in the advisory classes, with Arduinos, and all that. So I knew that I could help out, help people program, and stuff.

Mark: So, what are some of the things that makes the STEM Academy different than the high school at large, for you as a student?

Ian: Right, so, in the STEM Academy you get to participate in different projects that are all about science. First off, they require you to take all science and math classes, so, one each year. You also get to be in the STEM Advisory which, in there, you get to learn about your specific STEM tract. You get to just work on, you know, whatever’s there on the day. Like, for instance, in ours, we do lots of electronics, and do lots of programing stuff with Arduinos.

Mark: And so, do you, as students, get to make some of the decisions about, you know, what things you’re going to investigate?

Ian: Yeah, definitely. So, in my advisory, I am one of the leaders along with one of my friends, and we pick what we’re going to teach the kids that day.

Mark: We’ve heard that you work a whole bunch with Arduinos. How did you get into working with that technology?

Ian: Pretty much it all started through my robotics club. At the very beginning of the year, I wasn’t into, really, tech at all. But then, through the robotics club, I learned all about the engineering process, and I learned that it’s pretty cool that you can program all these little chips and do all this crazy stuff with electricity. So, that’s what got me into that. Now I’m looking at, like, electrical engineering in the future, so, you know, that’s why I want to continue learning about Arduinos, so I’m more prepared.

One of the most recent projects was kinda a coordination project with the Kinect sensor that Microsoft makes. I used it in conjunction with an Arduino. So, it would take depth data from the Kinect, and then, it would point a laser that I just had in place at a person. So, for instance, you could use a camera on that to track a person around the room. And that’s just, like, one of the many many things you can use with Arduinos.

Mark: That’s cool. I didn’t know that interfaced with the Kinect sensors.

Ian: I did have to go through a computer, but… otherwise, yeah. .

Mark: I’ve seen a lot of cool projects there be done with those Kinect sensors because of the infra-red light, is that right?

Ian: Yeah, they’re fantastic.

Mark: You alluded to, a little bit, that you’ve gotten to take on some leadership roles and, uh, helping teach some other students. Could you talk a little about that?

Ian: Yeah, sure, so, before the STEM thing all happened for me, in our robotics club, we like to go around and teach people all about STEM in different camps, and, just, different outings like that. But specifically in STEM, in my advisory, I get to choose different things related to electronics, Arduino, that I teach to the students in our advisory in that period. I’ve done stuff like taught them about electronic components, like resistors and LED’s, and then also intro to programming, stuff like that.

Mark: You’ve mentioned that you might want to continue on in electrical engineering. What are your future plans?

Ian: So I am hoping to either go to Berlin College of Engineering, or Brown, for electrical or computer engineering, depending on what it’s looking like. And then, hopefully after that I’ll be able to get a job just making systems. Cause, I just absolutely love creating, you know, different components with programming and electronics, all that sort of thing.

Mark: Oh, that’s cool. So, in the future, like 10 years from now, what would you ideally be building?

Ian: Maybe stuff doing with robotics? Because that’s just an absolute combination of all, like, mechanical, electrical, computer science: you have to have all of that stuff in there.

Mark: When you were in middle school, were you interested in this same sort of stuff?

Ian: In middle school? Honestly, I wasn’t really interested in tech, stuff like that. I was not sure at all what I wanted-what I was gonna be, like, when I was older. So that was an interesting thing: the transition to high school that’ll change so much.

One of the big projects was a thing we did called luna dance with some people from IBM. The dance team here, they wanted to do a dance but they wanted to have all light-up clothing. So, we put LED’s all over their clothing and used little micro-controllers to make it flash with the music. And that was absolutely fantastic, so, I’m going to write about that and that experience.

Mark: That’s cool. Then for your project, you also, how do you report out on that? You alluded to writing about it?

Ian: Yeah,we all, uh, make Google Sites, so we’re gonna have a Google website just with many of different topics, like: what were my goals? what did I take away from it? All that sort of thing.

Mark: Now, you talked about teaching. I also am interested in how you’ve been able to collaborate with students and teachers. Sort of on that level playing field. If you’ve had those experiences.

Ian: Yeah, definitely. Pretty much what happens with that is that we kind of collaborate a bit, you know, he talks to me about what we might want to be teaching them for the day, and then my friend and I, we just go about teaching the class.

Mark: Throwing those things up and teaching the class?

Ian: Yeah.

Mark: How do you think that has affected your place as a high school student? How you see the amount of control you have — control’s kinda weird but, your ability to make decisions and affect school change, or affect the course of the day.

Ian: Yeah, it is really nice, being able to teach others. You know, I know that I can have an affect on them, help teach them some things about STEM. I think teaching in general is kinda nice that way. It is weird when, you know, they’re nearly my age.

Mark: Yeah.

Ian: But, other than that though, I mean, you know, completely respect both ways. It’s good.

Mark: That’s cool. Have you encountered any difficulties in being in a different part of the school, as far as, like, getting support from the administration, or are there kids in the building who don’t know what the STEM academy is? Is there anything like that?

Ian: Yeah, I mean, there are certainly people who don’t know what it is, but it’s nice with the STEM Academy because it’s so — it’s not all that much separated from the rest of the school, so it’s hard to tell, besides that they’re in the advisory and they’re doing all this cool science stuff, if someone’s in the STEM Academy or not. Other than that, I think the STEM Academy is a really excellent option if you’re really interested in learning about science. It’s also a great way for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math to be spread to different kids in the school, cause that’s really, I think, where the future is going to be going. There’s going to be much more tech stuff then.

Mark: Talk to me about what you see, like, what you get as regarding your learning when you build stuff versus when you just learn about stuff.

Ian: Certainly. So, when you’re building stuff, there’s a whole section where you have to debug all the different things that could possibly go wrong when you’re building, and that applies to if it’s programing, electronics, mechanics, stuff like that. And it puts you in a certain mindset. Also it drives you to finish your creation. Which is hard when you’re learning normally, if you’re just doing a worksheet or writing an essay or something like that, it’s not as, you know, nice to see that finished project, that finished product. But, definitely, when you’re building something, you get a lot more out of it.

Mark: And you have to have that deliverable thing at the end, right?

Ian: Exactly, yeah. I actually helped my mentor, my robotics mentor Mr. Chase, teach a UVM class for high-school kids, which was really cool, too. It’s just awesome, having them learn stuff.

We’d like to thank Ian for speaking with us, as well as Leanne Smith and Essex High School in Essex, VT.


Music for this episode is again by dirtwire, and is used with permission. You can check out all the band’s songs over at

How does your school handle teaching ares of technology where students are the most well-informed subject leaders?

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Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and host of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time develops video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

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