A member of the Magistri, he taught science and coached wrestling at Pingry from 1957-1994.
For Alana Zussman, the Lower School's new Technology and Innovation Coordinator, a simple picture book—The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds—could be said to exemplify her role. Written in 2003, it's about a young girl, Vashti, who, thanks to an encouraging teacher, finds artistic inspiration by starting with an ordinary black dot on a piece of white paper. From there, her creativity blooms. Working closely with Lower School faculty to meaningfully incorporate technology and design thinking into the curriculum and deepen learning, Ms. Zussman hopes to instill that same creativity and courage—to experiment, take risks, and ask questions—in her Short Hills students. Her mantra is resoundingly kid-friendly, and catchy: Pingry + Innovation = Pinnovation!
The groundwork for Pinnovation was laid three years ago, when Dr. Sandy Lizaire-Duff, now Lower School Director, arrived at Pingry. Working closely with Mrs. Jill Driscoll P '30, Ms. Zussman's predecessor, and with the School's STEAM Committee, she began to ponder how best to engage students in more algorithmic and innovative thinking. She also encouraged professional growth opportunities around design thinking to introduce faculty to its possibilities. With Alana's arrival, an opportunity presented itself. "That's when Brian [Burkhart, Pingry's Director of Technology and Curricular Initiatives] and I started to consider: this would be a great time to add to the K-5 technology curriculum," recalls Dr. Lizaire-Duff. "Since this position already required collaborative work across disciplines, it was a logical step to capitalize on Alana's expertise in design thinking." With support from generous donors interested in nurturing the Lower School's STEAM efforts, that's just what she is doing.
Fittingly, among Ms. Zussman's first initiatives was to lead students in Grades K-2 in a celebration of International Dot Day in mid-September. "I wanted them to understand what innovation is all about—taking chances and pursuing anything you're interested in," she explains. What was involved? Kindergartners designed their own dots, imbuing them with a personal characteristic. Using an augmented reality application called Quiver on their iPads, their dots then came to life. Students in Grades 1 and 2 used the basic coding program Scratch Jr. to create their own interactive dots, building a story around them, transforming, moving, and spinning them. Quite intentionally, the intro lesson was all about playing and creating, says Ms. Zussman.
For several years already, and thanks to the encouragement of Dr. Lizaire-Duff, the Lower School has been incorporating design thinking approaches into parts its program, particularly its art and science classes. The goal of Ms. Zussman, who came to Pingry from an International Baccalaureate school in Manhattan, Dwight School, is to do more of it, and partner with faculty to integrate it more seamlessly into students' existing curriculum. And so, in addition to Grade 5 students getting treated to an actual "Pinnovation" specials class in Trimesters 2 and 3, Ms. Zussman visits every Lower School classroom once per cycle and, in between, works with faculty to determine how best to enhance their lessons with design thinking projects. (Design thinking is a creative approach to problem solving, in which students are taught to empathize with and understand the needs of the people for whom they are designing "solutions.")
For example, when Grade 1 was learning about community recently, Ms. Zussman collaborated with teachers to design a project in which students interviewed a host of Lower School faculty and staff, from SAGE Dining's Mr. Charlie Williams, to librarian Ms. Ann D'Innocenzo, to school counselor Dr. Alyssa Johns. Their task: Learn what each person does for the school and what they find challenging about their job, and then "prototype" each a gift to make their job easier. "They had to boil things down to the 'user' and ask themselves, 'Who am I designing for?' And they had to think about ways to help these members of our community have a better job experience," reflects Ms. Zussman. "As with all design thinking challenges, they were learning how to problem solve in creative ways."
One student designed a conveyor belt to transport Dr. Johns, who confessed to struggling to move around the building to meetings fast enough. Another created a heated spatula for Mr. Williams to expedite his cooking. For the teacher who was seeking more balance between work and home life, a student provided a detailed sketch of a Tesla, on autopilot! Following their designs, all students were asked to present their inventions to their classmates.
Purposely omitted from this "community" project was the use of technology, and the omission highlights Ms. Zussman's overarching philosophy: "Kids often expect to be using a tool or an app, but I want them to focus on the process first, and then choose the tool that makes sense for what they need to communicate—and reflect on why they chose it. It's not always about an app or an online experience." In short, nurturing design thinkers—indeed, "Pinnovaters"!—is as much about teaching effective, creative communication skills as it is about technology.
Ms. Zussman is still making her way through all the Lower School grades, in partnership with teachers, to determine needs and suitable projects, but thus far, student and faculty response has been very positive. "Anyone can be an innovator; it's not simply a mindset for engineers, scientists, or mathematicians," explains Dr. Lizaire-Duff. "Writers and readers can be innovators, too. That's what I want to stress to our faculty, and that's what I've been working closely with Alana on. There are different ways of taking risks in your thinking and teaching."
Ms. Zussman's additional initiatives include enrolling K-3 students in Kodable, an early coding program for kids that Mrs. Driscoll introduced during her tenure in the role, and inviting Grade 2 students to design their own islands as part of a unit on map skills (they programmed blue-bots using algorithms to explore their island "maps"). Learning about Earth's landforms through digital field trips, Grade 3 students used Google Drawings to create their own mountain forms. And, integrated into a lesson on digital citizenship, Grade 5 students, who now have access to a Pingry email account, are learning how to write a proper email. Later this year, they'll work on creative coding and graphic design projects, in addition to building in the Makerspace with the School's 3D printer and the laser cutter.
Preparing Pingry's young students for the Middle School, and their eventual work with Dr. Danielle Mirliss, the Middle and Upper School's Educational Technology and Innovation Coordinator, is another underlying goal for Ms. Zussman. This integrated approach to technology, which seeks to engage students across all divisions of the school, is one that Mr. Burkhart fully supports. "Our goal, reinforced by the Strategic Plan, is to maintain a K-12 curriculum that integrates algorithmic thinking, technological fluency, and coding," he says. "To that end, Ms. Zussman's work is crucial and aligns perfectly with the initiatives Dr. Mirliss has underway on the Basking Ridge Campus."
With a background in art education, she says she's always been fascinated by the intersection of graphic design and technology, and the communication and collaboration that can arise from related endeavors. It was exposure she didn't get enough of growing up as a visual thinker, she says. Now, she's excited to share her passion with Pingry students. "For me, it's really about identifying problems and trying to come up with creative solutions. I want students to recognize that they have the ability to make change."
Photos: Kindergarteners work with Ms. Zussman (far right) to learn basic coding by programming blue-bot robots to navigate a grid; Grade 2 students design their own islands.
Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer, email@example.com