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STEM Teacher Uses Robotic Technology to Keep the Classroom Interactive Amid COVID-19

Lisa Wong, director of technology, STEM teacher and mentor at Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, had no idea she and her husband’s trip to London to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary would help her prepare TCA for the COVID-19 pandemic.
TCA Campus Life
Lisa Wong, STEM teacher, mentor and director of technology at Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, works with students in her honors engineering design class on April 26, 2016. | Courtesy of Lisa Wong

Lisa Wong, director of technology, STEM teacher and mentor at Trinity Christian Academy in Addison, had no idea she and her husband’s trip to London to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary would help her prepare TCA for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During TCA’s spring break in early March 2020, just before COVID-19 began spreading at an unprecedented rate, Wong and her husband sat down in a small London church and heard something she calls, “a God thing.”

Dr. Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, happened to speak at the church that day, telling churchgoers that COVID-19 was going to turn into a pandemic that would kill hundreds of thousands and cause schools to shut down. 

“I was like, ‘Okay, God, you are preparing me,’” Wong said. “So literally on the flight home from London, I came up with all these plans, and how we were going to get TCA ready for this.”

When Wong came back the following Monday to tell her colleagues, “they all thought I was crazy.” However, Wong convinced the school’s leaders to begin training teachers on Zoom and look at different types of live-streaming services. 

By March 13, COVID-19 forced TCA to shut down. But because of Wong’s fast-action, the school was ready to take on the transition. Within just a couple of days, every class from pre-K to 12th grade moved 100% online. 

“If we didn't scramble, and I didn't hear that message, then we wouldn't [have been] ready,” Wong said. 

The Swivl technology system

After TCA shut down for the rest of the school year, Wong said her goal was ensuring students could come back to school in August, whether virtually or in-person, in a way that would preserve “the heart of TCA — the relationship of teachers and their students.”

Wong and her team worked all summer to find the best way to keep classroom interactivity alive. Eventually, Wong landed on the Swivl system. This classroom technology is a robot that “rotates to follow the teacher automatically” using “multiple markers for audio throughout the room,” and an “iPad [or mobile device] for recording video or streaming,” according to Swivl’s website

“So if [the teacher] walked to the back of the class and said, ‘Hi, Tommy, how can we help you?’ The person at home can see that interaction,” Wong said. “If a teacher’s sitting in the corner reading a book, it’ll track her. And if she goes up and goes to the board to touch the interactive display, then it’ll show them that.”

Luckily, TCA secured funding to purchase the Swivl system and installed it in almost every classroom from pre-K to 12th grade. Over the summer, Wong and her team held training sessions to help teachers learn the system. 

TCA has been meeting in-person since mid-August. While it took teachers some time to get used to it, Wong says the Swivl technology works great.

“So whether a kid is at home quarantined or actually sitting in a desk in the classroom, they [will] all experience the same connection and relationship and community that they would if we weren’t in a pandemic,” Wong said.

The life of a STEM mentor

But long before Wong was leading her school’s transition to a COVID-19-friendly format with classroom technology, she was just the daughter of an engineer and a young girl with a dream.

“To be honest, I loved mechanical toys growing up and always wondered why they were all geared toward boys,” Wong said. “So my dream was to one day become a mechanical engineer and design toys. That was where it all started.” 

She ended up graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Davis in the early ’90s. However, Wong said toy companies weren’t hiring, so she ended up spending most of her career in the defense industry designing missiles. 

As a woman, Wong’s inspiration to help young girls make their way in the STEM field came from her own experiences. For example, in her college courses, Wong noticed only three other women in a class of 300. 

Wong said it was very difficult. “[I had to] kind of prove myself and show other male engineers that I [was] valued, and I had an opinion, and I was capable.”

Because of her journey, she began volunteering at local high schools, joined the Society of Women Engineers and found a mentor that helped her pave her way through the male-dominated field. 

And that’s how she, ultimately, ended up in education.

“I think those experiences and me seeking out a mentor really shaped my passion to do this for the younger generation—to help them along the way [with] their struggles and to just encourage them,” Wong said. “And so I came to TCA, really, with a vision to start the STEM program here.”

The future of STEM at TCA

Wong has now been at TCA for eight years managing the technology department, but for her “fun job,” she teaches the honors engineering design class and has for six years. 

In normal times, Wong said her class does a senior design project creating products for “disabled children in the DFW area.” But because of COVID-19, her class will be unable to.

However, that hasn’t stopped Wong from teaching students “that they can use STEM fields to bless others in the world.” Instead, her students this year will be designing “a kitchen, science station” for TCA’s pre-K students. 

After the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a close, Wong said she plans to bring her students back out into the field. 

But aside from getting back to making a difference in the lives of others, Wong said she prays that the TCA community keeps using the new classroom technology “well and wisely” and understands “how it could be used in other ways in the future.”

Mostly, Wong hopes that the pandemic has shown TCA, and the world, the importance of technology in our lives and the classroom.

“We, I think, have all realized during the pandemic that [we] need community, and it’s not the same not in person,” Wong said. “But, really, because of technology, we were still able to connect in a certain way — probably even more than normal. So that’s my prayer with this TCA community — that they would continue to appreciate technology.”