Teacher Feature: Sarah Prior

Sarah is a teacher at Smithton High School (Tasmania) and also teaches Robotics, Digital Technologies, and Science as an Online Learning Opportunities teacher for students around the state. Sarah is originally from the USA where she spent eight years as a meteorologist before moving to Tasmania’s far northwest and retraining to be a science teacher. Having grown up in a disadvantaged country school in northern California, Sarah is passionate about ensuring students from regional areas have equal opportunities in STEM. In addition to building the robotics program in her own school, she recently organised a pilot robotics competition in her region with the goal of growing local competitions so more students have opportunities in robotics.

How long have you been a teacher, and what ages/subjects do you teach?

I have been teaching for eight years in a regional school in northwest Tasmania. I’ve taught Science, Robotics, Maths and Digital Technologies. I’ve taught Years 8 through 10 and have helped out with robotics in primary schools.

What are the most important things that you want your students to learn?

I want my students to learn strategies for troubleshooting problems they encounter in programming and building their robots. These strategies include working together to unpack problems and being systematic in their approach. I want them to learn that through hard work and perseverance they can solve really difficult problems that matter to them.

When did you start using LEGO Education products in the classroom?

I was first exposed to LEGO robotics when I was training to be a teacher. I was immediately drawn to it as it seemed like the best way to be exposed to fundamental programming concepts at a very young age that I had struggled to learn as a much older student. I started the program at my school in my first year of teaching and have never looked back!

What have been the benefits?

Our school has needed an outlet for students who enjoy STEM-based subjects and it has created a space and a culture at our school that didn’t exist before. There is a real sense of pride and ownership among our Robotics students that is palpable and every year more students get involved. It has had a positive impact on the primary schools in our region as we now have students from our High School sharing their knowledge with younger students.

How does it fit in with the curriculum?

I particularly love the way the sensors help students understand sound waves and electromagnetic radiation from a Science perspective. They really come away with a much deeper understanding of this from experiencing the strengths and limitations of their sensors. In terms of the Digital Technologies curriculum, the links are prolific. Nearly every challenge or task we do requires computational thinking skills. At our school it is an optional subject offered to Year 9 and 10, but our aim is to grow our resources and have it available to all students in Years 7 and 8.

What have been the greatest challenges / blockers?

Given the regional nature of our school it has been difficult to be involved in robotics competitions. We have had to travel between 3 to 5 hours to compete with our robots. We have managed to do this and it has been worth the effort as one of the biggest benefits to students is collaboration and being exposed to other passionate students who have achieved amazing things. Also attracting female participation has been particularly challenging at our school. We’ve put in place some strategies to encourage females and had our first female team compete at an event this year.

Could you tell me about one student who has been positively affected?

Our robotics program has inspired a former student to pursue further education in computer science and programming. This student had a genuine passion for programming and was able to move outside of EV3 programming to use Python to program our BrickPi (a 3rd-party platform that is compatible with LEGO sensors and motors). I feel really satisfied knowing he will start his formal studies on computer programming with a solid understanding of the fundamentals.

Do you have any advice for teachers thinking about getting started with LEGO Education?

As a teacher, it is rare to find a medium that caters to the diverse range of needs in our classrooms. LEGO Education offers powerful tools that can engage students that have really shut off from education, but also extend some of our highest achieving students. It is wonderful to see all my students getting what they need so I strongly recommend taking the leap. Seeking out someone that has a functioning program in a similar demographic would speed up the learning curve. Also, it is okay to have no knowledge and learn alongside your students. It can be a learning journey you take with your students and that is how I got my start.