Advice from Aspen Christine Johnson Ham: Environmental and Spatial Technology Teacher

Aspen is a 2011 graduate of our teacher education program at The University of Texas at Arlington. She shares below her ideas about 21st century learning and her unique role as a teacher of Environmental and Spatial Technology. What advanced technology tools do you want to learn more about?  -Dr. Semingson

“Students are expected to find problems in their community or our world and solve them using advanced technology.”

Aspen Bio pic
Aspen Christine Johnson Ham, UTA graduate (2011) facilitates student learning with use of advanced technology.

Being an EAST Facilitator is a very unique job. EAST is an acronym for Environmental and Spatial Technology. Students are expected to find problems in their community or our world and solve them using advanced technology. Our classroom is stocked with top of the line technology including professional grade software, video cameras, Macs and PCs, an Oculus Rift, two 3d printers, arduinos, raspberry pis and more.

There is no prescribed curriculum. Ideas are student generated. It is my job to facilitate their ideas into a viable project. EAST exists for grades K-12 depending on the district. I work with 5th and 6th graders. My classroom is literally controlled chaos as each student or group of students depending on the project are all working on something different at all times. Additionally, students are expected to work on projects with or for a community partner that they find and contact.

In a typical class period we might have 2-4 community members coming to meet with students, a Google Hangout going on with another group who contacted a company across the country all while other students are actively collaborating or calling their community partner on the phone. As you can imagine, this is a 100% student driven classroom. This is the first year our intermediate campus has offered EAST. As a result our core teachers have commented students enrolled in EAST have developed their critical thinking skills and are much more open to solve challenging problems in class.

The most challenging part of my job is allowing students to have control. Sometimes a student will pitch an idea for a project and I think in my head “Oh, this is going nowhere.”.…Then the student takes the initiative because I did a good job facilitating their thinking and it turns out to be an awesome project and a really meaningful experience for that student. For example: One of my students mentioned to me she was almost in a car accident with her dad because someone didn’t see a stop sign. She decided she wanted to get flashing stops signs put in across the city of Hot Springs. After more research she determined that this might not be doable at every single intersection and narrowed her focus to the stop signs in front of our school. She contacted the city and set up a meeting. After meeting with the city and finding out it would cost $2,000 to put in a stop sign, I suggested she program one herself. The city agreed to provide the sign and maintain the solar batteries and panels if she would code a circuit.

Currently, this 5th grade student is working to program an arduino and estimates the total cost to the district per flashing stop sign will be $100-$150. Originally when she suggested the project to me I thought it wasn’t very involved because I figured she would just call the city and they would agree or disagree to fund a flashing stop sign in this area. By effectively facilitating this project she is not only going to install something to make our school safer, she is also saving the district money and has found an opportunity to applying coding and electronics to a real life situation.

We welcome your comments below! -Dr. Semingson


  1. Aspen Ham says:

    Right now I have only two students using our VR equipment. One students is making a simulation of popular hiking trails for Hot Springs National Park that will be used for disabled patrons or patrons unable to hike so they can experience them at the visitors center. Another students is exploring possible simulations they can build for our local EMS training. I am always looking for more ideas to help guide them as I am new to having access to this type of technology.

    As far as 3d printing goes, I have students who have designed a prosthetic leg for a dog, pieces to make a hand assistive technology device and a couple building models. One model designed was for a portable homeless shelter on wheels, that is going to be built by a local church and used as transitional housing. The other model will be printed soon and is for a kiosk that is located downtown Hot Springs and will provide access to tourism information and resources for community members such as shelters and food pantry locations.

    This is our first year participating in EAST and we have only had our equipment since the end of September. We still have along way to go to become a stronger program, but we are making strides in the right direction. It is interesting how project types seem to come in waves. Right now I have several GIS and app building projects in my classroom.

  2. JT Dellinger says:

    You have a very cool opportunity to let students have ownership of their learning and make real-life applications. How have students used VR and 3D printing in your setting?

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