Money will help fund Garehime teacher’s circuitry program

Christmas came April 26 for Jason Lillebo, a teacher at Edith Garehime Elementary School. The Gifted and Talented Education teacher was awarded a grant from CenturyLink of nearly $5,000, one of about 310 such grants were awarded to teachers nationwide.

Lillebo applied for the grant as a way to fund his littleBits program, which he introduced earlier in the year. The littleBits are computer circuits that, when connected, can perform tasks. The company calls them Gizmos & Gadgets Kits. It was founded in 2011 by MIT graduate Ayah Bdeir.

Before receiving the grant, Lillebo used his own money to buy his classroom the first kit.

“Each one costs $286. That adds up really quickly,” he said. “There are circuits out there that are kind of low-level, but these are higher-level and there are infinite things that you can do by putting them together.”

The teacher found ways to raise money to buy more for his classroom until he had 11. The grant money (the check is made out to the school) will be used to buy even more.

Lillebo’s fourth-grade classroom includes a line of desks with six computers and eight Chromebooks — the latter bought using a CenturyLink grant four or five years ago. The overhead lights were draped to help avoid glare.

He opened one of the kits. Inside were colorful components.

“They snap together, so I guess they’re a little bit Lego-ish in that sense,” he said. “They can be battery-powered or powered by a USB or plugged in to use them different ways.”

The kits’ instruction books contain four set projects to help students understand what the circuits can do. After that, the students were given an open-ended problem and told it was up to them to provide a solution. The circuits were color-coded, based on input and output to make things a little easier.

“At first I worried that they (wouldn’t get it), but they just took it and ran with it. They were so unafraid,” he said.

The STEM kits are used by teams of two students each to help with problem solving. Any more students on a team, Lillebo said, and the engagement factor suffers.

The fourth-grade students made a self-driving “car” with the components, then had to come up with their own ideas for a challenge called “hack your classroom.” Another invention was a security alarm for a backpack. A chain-reaction contraption was one challenge, and one team had it undergo various movements until the final one hit a keyboard, which started a video playing.

Mike Jewell, director of network service operations at CenturyLink, said the grants went to science-based programs.

“(This STEM program) gets the workforce of the future ready for us,” he said.

There were 2,300 applications to CenturyLink. The highest amount granted was $5,000. Lillebo’s check was for $4,698.70. Why such a specific amount?

“You have to itemize what you’ll buy and how many, so I don’t know how you round up. I guess that’s my business background of being very precise,” Lillebo said.

Lillebo has been a teacher for 14 years. Before that, he worked for a company that provided fiber optic cable.

The award was a surprise and was announced in the school library. Afterward, the children high-fived the over-sized presentation check in their excitement.

Contact Jan Hogan at jhogan@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2949.

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