John Heffernan

MassCUE is pleased to announce John Heffernan, Ph.D. from the Anne T Dunphy School in Williamsburg, MA as the Featured Educator for February 2017.

What are you passionate about?

 Toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners are natural engineers.  They love sand castles, blocks, fairy houses, and other projects that support their creative, fantasy play.  We support this natural engineering instinct in preschool and kindergarten classrooms with blocks, LEGOs, sand and water tables, and other activities.  As students reach first grade and beyond, we remove all these activities from school.  Yet we still expect them be interested in engineering when they get to high school and college.   The Elementary Engineering Curriculum (EEC) I developed here in Williamsburg supports students’ natural engineering interests all through elementary school.

The EEC creates and delivers a preschool to grade six engineering experience based on robotics.  Each year, students have at least one robotics experience.   In grades K, two, four, six, and eight students also have an open ended engineering challenge.  I explicitly teach the engineering design process in an age appropriate way.  Robotics provides very high interest, motivating, and deep learning experience for students.

There are many reasons for introducing engineering to students early in their schooling.  First, students will need 21st Century skills for successful careers (Brophy, Portsmore, Klein, & Rogers, 2008).  These skills differ from skills traditional taught in schools.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills defines the four Cs – communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking as critically needed by our citizens in the future (The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2002).  Second, the EEC is very rich not only in engineering but in science, math, and technology.  English Language skills are also used in the curriculum.  Third, the EEC will benefit both girls and boys.

I have seen many boys that may be struggling with reading and attention issues really shine when it comes to robotics.  For the first time, they are seen as leaders in the classroom.  Additionally, girls that may not have had experience with LEGOs gain experience with engineering and building with LEGOs.  Finally, robotics is a very high interest, motivating, and deep experience for students.  Their level of understanding of STEM concepts goes much deeper when actually using and building these machines.

Grade 5 Girls Building NXT Robot Carr

Grade 5 Girls Building NXT Robot Car

Typically, early elementary students have few, if any, engineering experiences.  The essential question of the EEC project is:  how would students look if they received engineering education from preschool to grade eight? Although I hope the project will contribute to the pool of talented STEM workers in the future to maintain US competitiveness, I believe engineering to be a valuable way of thinking that benefits all.  In today’s media environment, many citizens have trouble distinguishing facts from opinions and also have difficulty with complex scientific theories (Miller, 2004).  Engineering provides a clear way of testing hypotheses, doing research, and determining objective measures of physical processes.  The EEC teaches valuable skills in engineering and other subjects in both a fun and deep way.

Can you share another current project you’re currently working on?

I recently purchased an Ultimaker 2+ 3D printer with some of my prize money from winning a Presidential Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Math and Science.  This is now part of the elementary Maker Space I have been creating the last 2 years with seed money from the Williamsburg PTO.

Students were fascinated and excited to have a 3D printer from day one.  Most students had at least heard of 3D printing.  After the initial setup, I decided I would start having elementary students use to print out existing designs.  Thingiverse is a web site where users submit their own designs that other people can print out and/or modify.   I figured it would be best to start with printing existing designs and work our way up to creating our own objects, which is a bit tricky for elementary students.   A major goal is for students to simply experience the process and ability to print out objects.

There have been some interesting things happening with 3D printing and students.  One of these is a constant parade of students, mostly sixth graders, that continually stop in the tech lab to check on the 3D printer and what it is currently printing.  With its open design, it is easy and fascinating to watch the Ultimaker 2+ print.  I find myself doing the same thing!  Gradually, more and more students have become interested in printing an object they choose.

We decided to try and use their newly found and intense interest in 3D printing to help some of these students with their math motivation.  Two mathematical concepts in particular are great to illustrate with 3D printing.  One is scale and the second is x, y, z coordinates.  Students came into the lab and we showed how the printer uses x, y, z coordinates to print.  We also had students scale some sample objects up and down to get at ratio, scale, and multiplication.  This led naturally to measurement as well because Cura shows the dimensions of the current object and you scale by replacing one of the x, y, or z dimension measurements with a new value, which is then scaled proportionally in the other two dimensions.

First Original 3D Printed Design Made in Williamsburg

First Original 3D Printed Design Made in Williamsburg

One thing that our Maker Space has really shown me is the joy kids experience in instantiating their own ideas and the importance of creating opportunities to do just that.

John Heffernan’s Bio:

John is currently Technology Coordinator at the Williamsburg Elementary Schools.  For the last 12 years, he has designed and implemented an innovative technology curriculum that provides deep, rich, engaging technology experiences integrated with standards and curriculum.  In his own teaching practice, John developed an innovative PK-6 LEGO robotics-based elementary engineering curriculum, fully aligned to standards. The curriculum is available at and also in his book Elementary Engineering:  Sustaining the Natural Engineering Instincts of Children.

John was previously an Educational Technology Consultant for the Collaborative for Educational Services, a third grade classroom teacher, and a Principal Software Engineer and Project Leader for Digital Equipment Corporation.  He worked on both network management and database software and received 2 patents.

John earned BSEE and MSEE/CS degrees from Tufts in 1981 and 1983 and a Masters of Education degree from Lesley College in 1992 John is a current member of the Lego Education Advisory Panel. John received a Presidential Award for the Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics and Science in 2016.  John received the Ph.D. degree in 2017 at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he researched developmental characteristics of elementary students engaged in open ended engineering challenges.

Brophy, S., Portsmore, M., Klein, S., & Rogers, C. (2008). Advancing Engineering Education in P-12 Classrooms. Journal of Engineering Education, 97(3).

Miller, J. D. (2004). Public Understanding of, and Attitudes toward, Scientific Research: What We Know and What We Need to Know. Public Understanding of Science, 13(3), 273–294.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2002). Framework for 21st Century Learning. Retrieved November 3, 2012, from



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