Innovation

21st century pen pals: Students around the world 3D print, build apps with Level Up Village

Level Up Village partners students from developing nations with students in the US to learn about design and engineering, and in the process, they learn about global collaboration.

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Girls in a school in Mali assemble a solar light circuit they made through a LUV course.
Image: Level Up Village

Theode Niyirinda taught high school math at Gayaza High School in Uganda. He was a tech enthusiast himself, but he knew that his students' education about technology stopped in the computer lab at school.

The principal at Gayaza introduced him to Neesha Rahim, the co-founder of Level Up Village (LUV), an online education program that connects students in developing countries with students in the US through science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) courses. A portion of the tuition paid by the US students is used to deliver the same course in the US to students at one of LUV's global partner schools.

LUV had donated a 3D printer to the school, so Niyirinda signed up to learn how to use it and teach a "Global Inventors in Training" course, which utilizes 3D printing to promote problem solving and engineering design.

"I was a student just like my girls I was helping," he said.

Through one of the courses, his students learned about the science of electricity, which in turn has helped them better understand their community and the challenges it faces — for example, how it often lacks electricity.

Since then, Niyirinda's students have partnered with students at schools in Connecticut, Florida, Texas, and New York. He has taught the 3D printing course many times and also recently started teaching another course, "Global Video Game Designers."

Here's how it starts: A teacher or administrator contacts the organization, and the founders decide which courses best fit the needs and goals of the school. They select a global partner, and train teachers in the STEAM courses. The students are matched one-on-one, and given the materials they need to complete the program, which usually lasts around eight weeks.

The LUV projects promote teamwork and teach students about failure, patience, and international collaboration. And perhaps one of the most important aspects of the program is the perspective that the students in classes like Niyirinda's bring: lessons US students don't get day-to-day in traditional education.

"They help them understand the challenges that developing countries face," Niyirinda said. "It also helps them have an intercultural experience which gives them another global view and this is paramount...They look at themselves as global inventors looking at solving global problems collaboratively."

From the ground up

When Amy McCooe saw the SmartBoards in her children's classrooms, she saw the potential — they could connect with other classrooms around the world. But the school wasn't harnessing the technology fully.

She started discussing it with Rahim, who had worked with international nonprofits that focused on youth education and conflict resolution.

"And I noticed that this generation of kids have an incredible quality," Rahim said. "They all want to make a difference. This is the 'do something' generation."

Rahim and McCooe also realized schools had some major hurdles in finding and maintaining global partnerships beyond a pen pal model; as well as in finding ways to implement new, cutting edge technology into their curriculum when there are so many requirements these days, like Common Core standards.

They decided to make it an extracurricular activity for students focused on technology, allowing students to build apps and design products. The STEAM component was critical — but they wanted more. Most of the time, kids in the same school are coming at problems from the same perspective. They wanted to change that.

LUV launched in 2012 as an after-school enrichment program in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. At first, a teacher's iPhone was used to capture and send video files back and forth, Rahim said, but it became evident that kids wanted to work together, in real-time.

So now, this is how it works: A student logs on to the platform, sees their partner, and has video letters waiting for them. Because Skype is often unreliable, LUV uses an asynchronous video letter exchange system. They hit play and watch their partner talking about what they just learned — the project they're about to complete. It's all transcribed and sent, just in case accents are hard to understand for either student, and they can ask questions about the content or about the students' culture. They do the hands-on activity that the global partner just completed, and then the partners come back together via video chat and visualize a solution.

Most of the courses are eight to 10 weeks long, and timed at about an hour and a half each, and are run after school or during the summer. Many schools have also brought LUV in-house, and use it every day to complete it in a shorter period. Now, the program is in 45 public and private schools in the US, with 20 global partners, and LUV is currently in talks with three metropolitan school systems to roll out district-wide programs.

McCooe has seen the positive impacts through student and teacher stories, but also at home. Her daughter was studying plate tectonics in seventh grade science, and had some questions about them. McCooe found out that in a certain area of Uganda, tectonic shifts cause issues with farming operations. Through LUV, her daughter could reach out to a student there and ask questions to better understand the concept.

A global impact

Esra Murray is a fifth-grade teacher at International School at Dundee (ISD) in Greenwich, Connecticut. She met Rahim and McCooe through an "Afters" program at her school, and they introduced her to LUV. She first taught Global Inventors in Training in 2013, and then taught Global App Developers, which partners two students to learn app development software and design an app.

"It made me rethink about the skills and strategies the 21st century citizen will need to thrive," Murray said. "It pushed me to rethink about the way I — or we — teach these skills, not in isolation but in-context. The learning that was going on was not only in the realm of 3D Printing [and] app development, but also in literacy, citizenship, empathy, [and] digital resources."

Luckily, Murray was able to integrate the LUV lessons into her school's curriculum, particularly 3D printing. Of course, it was a lot of work planning and implementing the curriculum outside of the classroom. Surprisingly, though, the technical aspects of the LUV courses — 3D printing and app development — weren't as challenging as she thought, and she credits that to Rahim, McCooe, and the LUV resources.

"The engagement level of my students increased significantly- and this was not because they spent more time on devices, it was more about their engagement in their own learning," she said. "They questioned a lot more, they identified problems, they had more exposure to global children's issues, and they became more aware of the world they live in."

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Students in Nicaragua work on a dissection project.
Image: Level Up Village

That's what drives Rahim and the LUV team — the passion to raise their sights together. She said teachers have come back saying they believe more in their own abilities, and students on both sides say that their world is opened up and that they feel empowered to make a difference.

A lot of the interactions are simple, but increasingly meaningful. Kids sing pop songs to one another and connect through their adoration of Beyoncé. They talk soccer. They smile when they find out how much they love candy. They even make up raps together.

"Their world opens up when they see how alike they are in spite of cultural and economic differences," Rahim said.

There's already many examples of these connections being made. One Global Inventors course in Nicaragua and Texas this spring taught students about energy scarcity, electrical engineering, and CAD. They designed and built solar-powered, 3D-printed light sources (flashlight-sized) that the Nicaraguan students could use in their energy-poor communities.

Another global partner, Masoom, works with child laborers in India who attend school at night because they work during the day, helping their families make shoes for a living. They ran a pilot program with the the students in spring 2015. The Indian kids hadn't ever worked with computers, but in a LUV course, they learned to build mobile apps with a US counterpart.

"The kids astounded themselves and us with how fast they learned," she said. "They built apps to teach other kids about Indian scientists, famous cricket players, and of course... How to make shoes. One boy from the class is determined now to be an engineer. That's something he had never imagined before."

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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