Pioneer hires new technology director

NORTHFIELD — Pioneer Valley Regional School District has hired John Heffernan as a technology director.

Most recently, Heffernan taught technology and engineering at Williamsburg’s Anne T. Dunphy Elementary School. He has been a teacher since 1992, before which he worked as an engineer, designing electronic equipment for the military and software for private companies. In 2013, Heffernan published a book called “Elementary Engineering: Sustaining the Natural Engineering Instincts of Children.” Most of the book, he said, gives lessons for an elementary robotics curriculum.

Heffernan was hired as part of Superintendent Jon Scagel’s efforts to improve the district’s uses of technology. The technology program will mostly be integrated into existing curricula, Scagel said.

The district’s goal, Heffernan explained, is to train students to be able to develop technological solutions to human problems.

“Technology has provided a lot of fantastic things for us,” Heffernan said. “It’s also created issues with the environment and socially.”

He gave an example of a project in which fifth- and sixth-grade students would interview younger students to design robotic pets for emotional support.

These kinds of projects are open-ended, Heffernan emphasized, without a single right answer.

“It takes the ideas of engineering design to the next level,” he said. “The work is on the kids. We’re not lecturing them and saying, ‘Now show us the right answer.’”

At Anne T. Dunphy Elementary School, Heffernan coordinated an all-school engineering project, in which students at different grade levels all designed devices around eggs. Kindergarten and first-grade students designed containers to protect eggs when dropped, while fifth- and sixth-grade students designed conveyor belts and elevators to move eggs without breaking them.

“It got me thinking,” Heffernan said, “what could happen if we did that until the kids are seniors? After 12 years I think we’ll see some fantastic things.”

In July, Heffernan was featured in the Recorder for being accepted into Lego’s “Master Educators” program, a nation-wide network of 110 teachers who use Legos in their curricula. Specifically, Heffernan said, Legos enable students to quickly build prototypes of of structures and vehicles, and are easy to use as a teaching material because most students are already familiar with how they work.