Lower Merion Portable Inspiration Project

Front Page Summary: 

Pennsylvania chapter combines philosophies of different STEM competitions to create Portable Inspiration, an outreach program for elementary and middle school students.


The Lower Merion High School Technology and Engineering Club, (PA) is a unique combination of the STEM activities of two different clubs, TSA and FIRST Robotics. Students are able to participate in both, taking part in a variety of technology and engineering competitions. Founded seven years ago, advisors Rich Kressly and Mark Piotrowski have been working in tandem with the club for five.
Although the projects and activities of TSA and FIRST are administered somewhat separately, there are several items that the Technology and Engineering Club work on together, such as fundraising, leadership training, and community service.

The leadership opportunities differ for each group, but accomplish the same things.
The FIRST Robotics team at LMHS (named Dawgma) has captains, while the TSA group functions as a formal chapter with officers. Historically, many students have crossed the “club” lines and participate in both types of activities. “We try to marry the ideals and philosophies of both organizations while being careful not to promote competition between the two,” said co-advisor Mark Piotrowski. Many students want to join. The Technology and Engineering Club “became bigger than us,” said Piotrowski. Finding a way to cap the number of students who can participate was hard, but necessary. Access to the club is now somewhat limited to those who can achieve requirements such as meeting deadlines, paying dues and submitting paperwork. There are about 42 students in the TSA group and 25 students in the FIRST Robotics group. “The student leadership team runs the day-to-day operations of the club and spend a great deal of time in and out of school fulfilling their roles as servant leaders,” said Mr. Piotrowski.

In 2007 members of TSA and the FIRST Robotics club developed a STEM outreach program for elementary and middle school students called Portable Inspiration. Designed to introduce students, educators and communities to the experience of engineering and the design process, Portable Inspiration is a workshop that is run by the students on location at local elementary schools and within the Lower Merion School District and beyond. High School gifted students, high school special needs students and Cub Scout groups have also participated in Portable Inspiration. “The program is flexible – offering simple explanations of engineering design activities and everything in between depending on how it is packaged for a specific event, class, workshop or experience,” said co-advisor, Rich Kressly. The presentation is introduced with a slide show by advisors Rich Kressly and Mark Piotrowski. Then students are divided into groups and rotate through various stations entitled, “Simple Machines,” “Robots in Our World,” “Lower Merion Robotics,” “Teamwork,” and hands-on competitive experiences with operating VEX robots. Each station lasts about 5-7 minutes long and is run solely by the LMHS Technology and Engineering Club students. “When we use Portable Inspiration as a workshop package for elementary schools, we include the teacher at the end of a session by having him/her drive one of our 120-pound robots in front of the class. Each teacher leaves with a CD of files for follow up with the class on teamwork, simple machines, and robotics,” Mr. Kressly said.

“Our high school students are actively engaged in meaningful outreach and applying/sharing their skills and knowledge in meaningful ways. Not only does this help address state and national education standards, it puts them in management and organizational roles. Young students see older students excited about engineering, design, problem solving, and teamwork, and gives them the type of role models our country needs so badly,” Mr. Kressly said.

Having matured through the Portable Inspiration experience, a past PATSA officer and current LMHS TSA officer is organizing a LEGO/STEM event for 6-9 year olds in the Lower Merion School District as her senior project, significantly widening the net of the club’s outreach. Since its inception last year, the Portable Inspiration program materials have been made available at http://www.chiefdelphi.com/media/papers/2052 including a "how to" type guide to replicating the program through a popular robotics education message board.

LMHS received the Chapter Excellence Award for Pennsylvania at TSA’s 2008 national conference in Orlando and has won more than 50 awards in TSA and FIRST combined over the past seven years. “The overall student experience is proving to be a worthwhile one, with many of the club’s graduates going on to pursue engineering and design related futures,” Mr. Kressly said.