06/24/2013 03:21 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

Igniting Moments of Discovery Through Teaching

As an employee of the global services company Cognizant, I was stumped beyond belief recently by a middle school student during a technology class I taught as a volunteer through the Citizen Schools program.

For the past two semesters, I led a hands-on "apprenticeship" class called TechnoSWAG, based on a project I did at home with my daughters. In TechnoSWAG, the students selected an image and used iron-on transfers to apply that image to a piece of fabric. The students then designed a pattern of LED lights that they would sew into the fabric around the image, using conductive thread - thread that contains a small amount of metal.

They sewed the LEDs into the fabric to a small microcontroller called the Lilypad Arduino, designed for e-textiles computing applications. Once all the sewing was completed to create a circuit, the students learned how to program the microcontroller, using a C-like programming language, to light up the lights in various patterns with loops, delays, and other programming constructs. They learned about conductive properties, circuits and programming-- and how all three work together to produce their desired pattern. The end result was an article of clothing or a banner with a bit of light-up "swagger."

Now, one of the things I learned - or thought I learned - while creating several test projects at home in preparation for teaching the class, is that the small battery that powers the system has only enough power to light three or maybe four of the LEDs at a time. But during the class one day, one of my students, Ohani, brought his project over to show me what he had done.

He said, "Look, Mr. Greenlaw, I've got all eight of them lit up!" I was shocked and I asked Ohani, "How did you do that?" He smiled and said, "Well, they are not actually all lit at once - I set the delay timer down to 10 milliseconds so they go on and off so fast, that it only looks like they are all on."

It was true. The lights were blinking on and off so fast, that to the human eye, it appeared as though they were always on. I thought that was pretty cool - Ohani taught me how to do something I thought was impossible!

Last month, another of my TechnoSWAG students amazed me. Out of thousands of applicants, a sixth grade student from my class, Cassidy Wright, was selected as one of fifty students to present her TechnoSWAG project at the White House Science Fair.

Cassidy was a stand-out student from the first day of class. She chose to base her TechnoSWAG banner on a cause near and dear to her heart--anti-bullying. With the poise of an expert, she explained to the United States Chief Technology Officer, Todd Park, how to set up a LED light circuit programmed by a computer. Seeing her message to "Be Yourself" lit up with the LED lights that she herself had programmed, was an incredible moment of pride for me.

Cassidy and Ohani are prime examples that all kids can achieve great things when given the opportunity. These two stories epitomize how professionals from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields can be catalysts for both students and those who are called to teach. Both the students and I had moments of discovery: Ohani discovered something about his ability to solve problems in unconventional ways, Cassidy learned that she could use her natural curiosity for social good, and I discovered that fun hands-on apprenticeships, like those provided by Citizen Schools, create the conditions for these wonderful moments of discovery.

There are hundreds of moments of discovery enabled through Cognizant's partnership with Citizen Schools, and I hope other companies will answer President Obama's call for an all hands on deck approach to STEM education. Cognizant is proud to partner with Citizen Schools and the US2020 initiative to ensure that kids across the country have the opportunity to have these moments of discovery-- the inspiration that sparks a lasting passion for learning.