When Covid-19 forced teachers to quickly crank up their understanding of best practices in online education, an unforeseen but positive outcome for Helen Harlan, an Edgerton Center K-12 instructor embedded within the Greater Lawrence Technical School (GLTS), has been more, not less, one-on-one virtual face time with students.
“I’m usually behind the scenes, thinking about high-level recommendations for teachers, how to sequence the curriculum so teachers can focus on teaching,” said Harlan, referring to pre-Covid time at GLTS when she worked with teachers to implement a pilot partnership between the non-profit Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), GLTS, and its STEAM Innovation program consisting of about 90 high school students.
Since joining the school three years ago, thanks to AFFOA funding, Harlan has become a trusted resource of soft-spoken wisdom paired with a can-do attitude. Her credentials, an undergraduate and graduate degree from MIT and a Master’s in Education from Tufts University, enable her to be useful on multiple fronts given her engineering expertise and her understanding of how to nurture student learning.
Yet, when the pandemic halted in-person education at the vocational school that is, by its very nature, almost entirely hands-on, the curriculum required a complete rethink.
“You can’t sit with every student, you can’t catch students struggling, you can’t get the same kind of group interaction as you can in person. But we do break-out rooms, we make use of technology.”
“This year I’ve been in the classroom more, following along more closely. We’re going to implement Arduinos, and I’m going to be a second support to teachers,” Harlan remarked. "We’re collaborating so closely, every moment counts.”
“The exciting part,” Harlan said, “is that students are like, ‘We want school, we want hands-on things, and we miss each other,’ and you see bright spots when teaching them online.”
“Kids are so excited to get the kits at home,” said Harlan referring to the bins of tools, electronic components, Arduinos, and assorted materials they are using in their at-home classrooms. The step-by-step video tutorials Harlan creates sneak in the engineering lessons. In one project, students are creating a "who dunnit" mystery learning DNA analysis, assembling an electrophoresis kit, and programming electro-mechanical systems.
The vocational school, just north of Boston, enrolls over 1,500 students. Over 80% of the students identify as Hispanic or Latino, and for almost half of the students, English is not their first language.* It’s a community of students that Harlan finds particularly compelling.
Recalling her student teaching days at TechBoston Academy in the Sheltered English Instruction program composed of English language learners, Harlan remarked, “What made me fall in love with teaching was them, learning with them, learning about them, seeing them grow, it was astounding.”
“I get to be the support that not enough teachers have,” commented Harlan, referring to her support of the GLTS teachers. She is also involved in creating a knitting curriculum, an initiative of Advanced Functional Fabrics partnership with the STEAM Innovation Program.
“It’s really been fulfilling to support teachers in a role where teachers can come to me and say, ‘I think this is a cool thing that I want to get students involved in, I don’t know very much about it, can you find me resources?’”
The cohort of 38 students who began the GLTS Steam program when it began in 2017 are now seniors. They are ready to break out into the world, with skills in engineering, computing, and life sciences. Six seniors are in co-op programs and one is participating in MIT’s BEEAM (Broadening Engagement through Engineering at MIT) Program.
As Covid-19 poses new challenges, Helen and the students and staff at GLTS are leveraging the constraints to stretch in new ways. Helen would not want to be embedded anywhere else.