One volunteer makes a big difference

Story of service • New Hampshire • February 2013

Chester Academy technology
teacher Susan Kessler (left) and IBM
volunteer Tania Zirn collaborate to
inspire students.
Often, a volunteer commitment at a school begins when your own children attend the school. That was true for Tania Zirn, an IBM software engineer. She started helping at Chester Academy, a K-8 public school in New Hampshire, when her older son was in first grade. But her volunteering not only helped both her boys, now in the third and sixth grades, it grew into a technology curriculum highlight for every seventh grade student in the school with the use of an IBM Activity Kit.

In the spring of 2011, budget cuts dictated the elimination of a technology assistant position at the school. That left the one and only technology teacher responsible for teaching computer classes for eight grade levels, managing the software used in the computer lab as well as the software used by the other teachers in their classrooms, helping those teachers with any computer–related issues, and writing all technology grants. Of course, the end result was less computer lab time for most students.

“I was saddened by that turn of events,” explained Tania. “I didn’t want the students to suffer, so I decided I had to help more.” She started putting in more hours in her sons’ grades to help Susan Kessler, the technology teacher. With her knowledge of computers and software, she was able to answer student questions, help with computer projects and keep the kids on track, allowing Mrs. Kessler to complete her lessons on schedule.

Mission: Innovation Activity Kit complements technology curriculum

Tania wanted to make her volunteer hours have even more impact by applying for an IBM Community Grant. While researching the grant program she learned about IBM Activity Kits and, with the technology teacher’s assistance, found Mission: Innovation, a volunteer Activity Kit that directly applied to the seventh grade’s Past and Future Technologies project.

Each class of seventh grade students (one class per quarter) learns about the history of technology. After they research different technologies that have already been invented, Tania shares the Mission: Innovation presentation and Smarter Planet videos with the students to prepare them for their assignment to come up with their own future technology, create a report on it and present it to the class.

Tania is enthusiastic about the Activity Kit, “The Mission: Innovation presentation is directly related to this part of their technology curriculum and had a positive impact on student learning. Learning about sustainable energy, traffic congestion and water management was a great way to start them thinking about a future technology.”

The students brainstormed additional categories: medical, pet care, land conservation, safety in sports equipment, and food waste. They then worked in teams to select a category, identify a specific solution and create an animated video showcasing their future technology.

“Tania’s work with the students energized both me and the students,” said Susan Kessler. “She gave them focus, interest and the confidence that they could create something for the future. They brainstormed a list of ‘problems’ that they could solve and worked in teams to create a video showing how their technology works. It was very rewarding to me to see my students work together to solve problems that they previously thought could only be fixed by adults.”

Through Tania’s volunteer efforts at Chester Academy, the school received a Community Grant last year. It was used to purchase a video camera and tripod for the students to use to create their videos and animations. Tania continues to track her volunteer hours and plans to qualify and apply for an IBM grant every year.

Volunteering in the computer lab helped provide a better student-adult ratio and more one-on-one assistance and, as a result, the students were able to learn more about technology. Presenting the Mission: Innovation Activity Kit to the seventh graders inspired them to start thinking about problem solving for the future.

Tania concluded, “With the way our schools are struggling these days, it was very fulfilling and memorable to be able to help in a way specific to my 25+ years of work experience and make a difference in the lives of students in the school.”

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