LITCHFIELD COUNTY — Regional School District 6, West Hartford, Litchfield, and other schools have been working with NextGen SmartyPants, based in Canton, to bring engaging STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) education to kids of all ages, according to an email from the company.
Through “COVID Cohorts,” NextGen SmartyPants matches the schedule for Live Distance Learning and Live In-Person Leaning classes in STEAM subjects to any Covid-19 hybrid model in the local or regional school system, according to the firm’s founder, Paras Patani.
“I watched kids from Kindergarten to sixth grade working together — they absolutely love it,” said Principal Tracy Keilty of Goshen Center School in Goshen. “I often heard, ‘Mrs. Keilty, let me show you what I’m making!’ This is hands-on creativity, where the kids can try new things and are motivated to continue to try harder.”
Jennifer Dietter’s sons Jett, 10, and Jack, 13, of Goshen have taken classes in robotics, coding, electrical circuits, web development, and LEGO Computer Aided Design, all with NextGen SmartyPants. They took these in the after-school enrichment program at Goshen Center School and then transitioned to NextGen’s Live Distance Learning programs after their schools closed due to the Coronavirus.
“He’s always been interested in math, but now he asks how things work and wants to build things,” Dietter said about her 10-year-old, Jett. The NextGen SmartyPants teachers taught her sons how to apply their math skills to control robots, build circuits, write code, and more in NextGen’s unique STEM programs.
RSD6 Superintendent Chris Leone brought NextGen SmartyPants to his 2,100 students, teaching STEM programs in all grades K-12, in both in-person and live distance learning formats. RSD6 also signed a five-year contract with the firm to build a competitive FIRST LEGO League robotics team.
“From the second we closed on-site due to the pandemic, NextGen SmartyPants moved seamlessly to live distance learning and is still engaging the kids at all levels of learning and language differences. I’ve witnessed kids become engaged day to day in coding and robotics in eight schools,” Leone said, noting that all Covid-19 precautions were implemented in April. “I wish they would clone themselves.”
Patani, also an engineer, said the U.S. spends about $40 billion annually on STEM education, primarily on ed-tech equipment and software, but not on how to teach the students.
“As a country, we’re still 43rd in math and 29th in science in the world, so throwing money into more ed-tech just isn’t working. Instead, what’s needed is true, high-quality, hands-on education,” Patani said. “We teach kids how to apply the math skills they learn in class every day in a fun and engaging way. For the kids, it’s just playing, and what better way is there to learn than that?” Patani said.
By providing STEM classes for kids and professional development training for teachers, NextGen SmartyPants partners with schools to provide school systems a complete solution. Kids are even learning how to create with Photoshop, iMovie, and GarageBand in the programs.
Patani started the company when his daughter Arushi, then 5, wanted to add LED lights to her LEGO set, and he taught her the math, soldering, and circuit skills that enabled her to light up the roller coaster.
“Girls love STEM learning as much as the boys, they just may have a more creative angle to it,” Patani said. “Our mission is to inspire our students’ sense of curiosity and foster their enthusiasm to want to learn more.”
An example is their Star Wars robotics class, which involves two revolving spaceships. Students learn the underlying engineering and apply their skills to figure out how to redesign the system to prevent the spaceships from colliding.
Katy Fressola is an administrator at Renbrook School in West Hartford, where NextGen SmartyPants also teaches its courses. After learning about the program, Fressola helped bring NextGen SmartyPants into Bugbee Elementary School in the West Hartford Public School system so that her own children could benefit, as well. Ben, 10, and Lauren, 14, have learned Animals Robotics, coding with Scratch and Java, and even manipulating robots through virtual reality.
“Parents have been struggling at home to keep kids busy. This has kept Ben motivated. He gets challenges. It’s hands-on play,” Fressola said. “If you’re struggling, the teacher drops in to help.”
Alisen Harrison enrolled her sons Noah, 8, and Adam 6, in the program at Lake Garda Elementary School, Burlington. Once he learned coding and how things worked together, Noah expanded how he built at home. He was fascinated by his new ability to troubleshoot or solve a problem, e.g. how a remote control moves an object. After Noah took the Summer Camp program in 2019, Harrison led the charge to bring it to his school, and 38 kids took the class.
Patani noted that kids, parents and grandparents around the U.S. are taking NextGen SmartyPants’ distance learning classes. He sees the program’s ability to level the playing field of STEM learning between urban and rural areas, as well as across generations.
For more information visit www.nextgensmartypants.com/.