Teaching the teachers, IBM volunteer provides UK educators with IT insights

Story of service • UK • July 2013


Colleen Haffey, pictured here with a
robot used to help children learn
about programming, says that the
rapid change in IT is an educator’s
biggest challenge. Over the last
two years her IT Insights workshops
have helped teachers keep pace.
Colleen Haffey’s timing to create a series of IT Insights workshops for secondary school teachers in the United Kingdom could not have been better. Britain is re-thinking its approach to teaching students to be “digitally literate.” A curriculum that emphasized teaching children how to use a software product may not be as beneficial as one that also teaches them how to create software and how to conceptualize technology approaches to solve a problem or improve a situation.

Last winter, the UK’s education secretary proposed replacing the existing Information and Communication Technology (ICT) curriculum. An early draft of the new curriculum defines digital literacy as “the ability to access, use and express oneself using digital technology, including a critical understanding of technology's impact on the individual and society.”

As a software architect for IBM and mother of two sons, Colleen might have anticipated an upcoming change in the classroom, and, in fact, she was out in front of the change. Colleen created and delivered a series of workshops across the UK to provide teachers with insights into how IT can make the world a better place and to enable them to pass on the Smarter Planet philosophy and case studies to their pupils.

“Part of the problem the tech industry faces is that youngsters at school see IT as a rather boring option,” says Colleen. “They equate it with spreadsheets and processors and the routine things in an office, but we know that advanced technologies can enrich people’s lives and make a real difference to society.”

Teaching the teachers and giving them the vocabulary, examples and resources to carry this message to their students is paramount. Colleen believes the biggest challenge educators face in supporting their students’ ICT needs is the extreme pace of change in the IT industry. In an editorial on the subject, the British newspaper The Guardian surmised that “The faster a field moves, the more vital a strong grasp of first principles becomes.”

Inspirational and useful

Working in collaboration with her IBM Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs team, Colleen created an agenda and outline for the workshop and then went about gathering content and recruiting speakers. At the heart of the IT Insights workshops is IBM’s Smarter Planet concept which is conveyed to teachers through real life case studies, such as addressing traffic congestion and technology at sporting events. The information enables them to engage their students about how the world can work better by utilizing Smarter Planet ideas. “These workshops illustrate how modern technology—and what we do with it—can change the world,” says Colleen. “The feedback we have had from the teachers has been very good, with people describing the day as ‘inspirational’.”

Over the past two years Colleen has planned and delivered nine IT Insights workshops at a number of locations throughout the UK, reaching well over a hundred teachers and including mentoring a Scottish team to run a workshop in Edinburgh. Along the way, Colleen has been joined by IBM volunteers, including the IBM UK-Ireland general manager and the technical leadership vice president for IBM in Europe, and other dedicated IBM team members, to present various aspects of the workshop.

One presentation describes IBM’s partnership with the All England Club and its famous tennis tournament at Wimbledon. “This went down very well with the teachers, who were fascinated to hear how IBM’s technology is working behind the scenes at Wimbledon, and it gives them a topic they can talk about with their students,” says Colleen. One attendee wrote on her evaluation form that “The workshop gave me so many ideas that I can use with so many different levels of students—one of the most useful workshop or training days that I have ever attended.” Another teacher actually created a number of lesson plans—vital elements that guide class instruction—linked to the Smarter Planet agenda and posted them on the Teachers TryScience web site.

Ending the day feeling elated

In addition to working with teachers, Colleen has also directly helped young people get hands-on experience with technology—specifically, the concepts of programming and logical thinking through robotics—while making sure they have a lot of fun in the process.

“The most memorable workshop I've run was an ‘Engineer-a-Robot’ activity for a charity which provides alternative education for children who have been excluded from mainstream school—they have behavioral issues and it is very difficult to hold their attention,” she says. “I particularly remember how one of the children, whose teacher said she is generally very difficult to engage, was captivated by the challenge of programming the robots. She and one of her team mates worked very hard right through the lunch break to get their robot moving successfully around the maze before any of the others.” Colleen has four more robotics workshops scheduled this year.

This past March she gave a Smarter Planet presentation to primary school students. Colleen says that “the nine and ten year olds were the most engaged and enthusiastic audience I've had in all my years with IBM!” She adds, “Every time I've taken part in volunteering activities I've ended the day feeling elated.”

Colleen is a winner of the 2012 IBM Volunteer Excellence Award which recognizes IBM employees or teams who best exemplify the IBM values of dedication, innovation and trust through their volunteer efforts.

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