Photo of Samantha Utley by Tracy Certo.
Samantha Utley has second graders puzzling over how to protect a house from an erupting volcano, using only popsicle sticks, Play-Doh and a foot of tape.
She’s had sixth graders calculate formulas for kinetic and potential energy from the drop of the puck at a hockey game.
Teaching at Duquesne City School District is a job she relishes, finding new and creative ways to approach learning that will get kids engaged.
“I wear lots of hats,” says Utley, an instructional coach for STEAM Pre-K through 6 and Dean of Students.
That’s for sure.
“She’s the director of our afterschool program,” says Stanley Whiteman, the school’s curriculum director. “She sponsors an all-girl making club. She led students in a K’Nex competition at Duquesne University to compete against other local elementary schools. She also serves as a mentor for many students.”
Duquesne City is a small school district but has two dedicated maker spaces for kids’ hands-on building. Creation Lab operates for pre-K through grade 2, and The Boiler Room is designated for grades 3-6. A third, the Coding and Bots Lab, is in the works.
Utley’s volcano assignment was a project for kids in the Creation Station.
“This week, they’re in groups coming up with a group solution to prevent the lava flow from reaching the house,” Utley says. “Then, they’ll get to engineer and test it to see if it works.”
The kids in the Boiler Room use a service called News ELA, that takes actual stories from newspapers and news magazines like Time and presents them in grade-appropriate ways.
“Our 5thgraders were learning about the water cycle,” Utley explains. “We wanted to talk about water filtration. One article was about the Flint water crisis, and another was about water throughout the world, and how people don’t always have access to clean and safe water.”
Students had three steps to respond. First, they had to think about it. Then, they asked a question, like “I wonder what people in Flint will do after the government officials leave?” Finally, the kids came up with an idea based on the article.
“They worked in small groups to create a water filter and got to test it to see if it worked,” says Utley.
Another unique program that Utley has implemented is the NHL’s “Future Goals—Hockey Scholar,” a no-cost program that uses hockey to discuss and test all sorts of scientific principles, like rates and ratios and states of matter, force and energy.
As for the Coding and Bots Lab, right now they’re ordering furniture and technology.
“My goal for the room, for 4th-6th graders, is to engage them in critical thinking skills,” Utley says. “21stcentury skills are important, but it’s more important for me for the kids to understand the knowledge behind it. What is coding? What is a loop? And then implement that knowledge.”
That means learning to work in a group to develop a plan and see it through, despite setbacks.
“Whenever something doesn’t work, students get frustrated,” she says. “How can we take that frustration and build with it? How can we get them to problem solve, without looking for someone else to solve the problem for them?”
Duquesne City Schools is approaching 400 students in pre-K through 6thgrade. That’s up 15 percent in the past few years.
“All students have their own iPad,” says Whiteman. “We have an exciting curriculum. They’re engaged in project-based learning. I believe we provide an outstanding elementary education.”
Utley is a big part of that drive.
“She’s often seen in the maker spaces working one-on-one with students and supporting teachers as they design specific lessons,” Whiteman says.
Utley has never seen herself doing anything but teaching.
“It’s very important to me that all students have worthwhile and meaningful opportunities when it comes to education,” she says. “We shouldn’t let outside factors determine what happens inside school – factors beyond the school’s control – their lifestyle outside school, stability at home.
“At least when they come to school, they know that they’re loved and appreciated and will have meaningful learning experiences.”