Gabby McKenzie’s partner on this class project is Vanessa, a student her age in Honduras.

Gabby lives in south Roanoke County and is a fifth-grader at Oak Grove Elementary School. She wasn’t sure how much she would have in common with Vanessa, who lives about 2,000 miles away in a village with sporadic electricity.

The girls have only exchanged a few videos, but Gabby’s already discovered several similarities, like shared loves of soccer and pop music.

“I didn’t think that her life would be so interesting, but it really is,” Gabby said.

For the past five weeks, Gabby and Vanessa have worked together to design a solar flashlight, part of an interdisciplinary project that one of Gabby’s teachers, Tina Coffey, is piloting this semester.

Coffey, one of this year’s finalists for the McGlothlin Award for Teaching Excellence, is an instructional technology resource teacher at Oak Grove.

A former colleague told her about Level Up Village, a company that designs STEAM projects — that stands for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics — and then connects classrooms in different countries to work on the projects collaboratively .

When Coffey found the solar-powered flashlight project online, she envisioned all kinds of possibilities. With it, students could review lessons on electricity, circuits and renewable and nonrenewable resources, and practice oral language skills — all areas the fifth-graders will be tested on for Standards of Learning this spring.

“It was just this perfect project,” Coffey said.

She pitched it to administrators in central office to get funding — about $2,700 in all — and from there the flashlight project grew. The district’s coordinator for foreign languages suggested adding a Spanish component, and that led to another partnership with Cave Spring High School. The high school Spanish students have visited Oak Grove classes several times to teach phrases they can use with their Central and South American partners.

“There are projects that you know are going to be cool, and you get into the middle of it and you’re like, oh my gosh, this is even better than I imagined,” Coffey said. “This is one of those.”

The Oak Grove students are about halfway through the eight-week project. Using Tinkercad, a software to design 3-D objects, the fifth-graders and their partners, in Argentina, Honduras and Nicaragua, are creating solar-powered flashlights. The students have a kit and have to design their flashlight bodies to work with the kits, which include wiring and bulbs, an on/off switch and a small solar panel of about 3 square inches.

“We have to kind of work together,” said Sarah Addo, whose Honduran partner is named Beiry.

Most of the students have personalized their designs beyond a simple box shape, adding ears, legs and wings to animate the flashlights .

These fifth-graders are “perfectionists,” Coffey said. Getting the measurements just right has been a challenge, students said. Filming videos to send to their partners has been stressful for some, too.

Monday, while Coffey helped one group of students with their designs, fifth-grade teacher Leigh Ann Becker helped another group record videos.

“Let’s get you situated,” Becker told Nadia Hosny of Oak Grove. “Turn this up a little. The camera’s right there.”

Nadia recorded her video once and then decided to redo it.

“My trip this year to school is about 20 minutes,” Nadia told her Honduran partner, Genesis, in English. “I ride two buses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.”

“That sounded great,” Becker told her.

“It makes me really nervous,” said Daniel Robinson, one of Nadia’s classmates. “When you’re making videos, it’s hard to concentrate. It feels like everyone’s just watching you.”

Sarah said the project has helped put things in perspective for her and her classmates, who’ve begun to realize some of the privileges they have that their partners do not.

“They have more difficulties than us, more serious difficulties than like, dropping your phone on the floor and then you get a brand new one right away,” Sarah said.

Coffey said discussions about empathy and understanding have popped up “organically” as students work on their projects and learn more about their partners’ lives, an aspect of the project she didn’t originally anticipate.

“The level of engagement that the students have because they have a relationship with somebody in a different culture has been amazing,” she said.

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