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Riverhead tech startup connects classrooms around the world for global Earth Day pen pal project

Stephanie Suter's third grade class works together to find the location of their Buncee Buddy classroom in Bulgaria. Courtesy photo

As Stephanie Suter started the video call, her third graders sitting in quiet excitement behind her, she didn’t know what to expect.

The classroom they were calling was more than 4,600 miles away from Southold Elementary School, and neither class knew where the other one was. Her students had prepared a list of questions, and a giant world map was unfurled across the classroom floor to help them try to pinpoint their new pen pals’ location.

But would they be able to find the answer?

She didn’t need to worry. Not only did her students figure out that the classroom on the other end of the call was in Bulgaria, but they learned many other unexpected lessons from the encounter – patience as they worked through the language barrier, teamwork as they developed new questions to ask and a new understanding of the human similarities that connect us all.

Courtesy photo

“You can’t learn this stuff in a textbook or research it online,” Suter said in an interview yesterday. “They saw how similar the kids were to them, even though they spoke a different language and wrote in a different alphabet. It connected them to these children that they would have never otherwise had the chance to meet.”

The connection was made possible through Buncee, a Riverhead tech start-up that is now being used in more than 10,000 classrooms around the world.

Buncee created by Stephanie Suter’s third grade class

Both Suter and her Bulgarian counterpart, Rositsa Mineva, use Buncee in their classrooms – not only as a presentation tool, but also as a creative way for students to complete their own assignments. The web-based tool allows users to arrange text, images, video and audio into a multi-slide presentation, uploading their own content or making use of Buncee’s in-app search engine to easily include content that’s already on the web.

“It’s so easy to use and kids love it,” said Francesca Arturi, Buncee marketing associate. “There’s no learning curve. I go into first grade classrooms and kids are making Buncees.”

Read more: Riverhead tech start-up used by thousands of teachers all over the world

That ease of use has enthralled teachers and students around the world, gaining rapid popularity and tripling its user base in the span of a year.

And now the locally based team behind Buncee has been brainstorming new ways to use Buncee to enhance the learning experience. Their most recent endeavor is bringing together classrooms from almost every continent in a global Earth Day pen pal project.

“We thought it would be fitting to celebrate global connectivity and the earth in one project,” Arturi said.

Suter and Mineva, who introduced their classrooms last month, agreed to be the guinea pigs for the project – and it went off without a hitch. After the classrooms guessed each other’s locations with a “Mystery Skype,” the students are now in the process of making “About Me” Buncees to trade with the other classroom – a project that poses unique challenges due to the Bulgarian students’ limited knowledge of English. But Buncee is a medium well suited for overcoming such language barriers.

“Its tools are very visual,” Arturi said. “Even if they don’t know English very well, you can put a sticker of a tree in to convey your meaning that way along with text.”

Suter agreed. “It’s one-stop shopping for them – they don’t have to leave it to pull in media and video and pictures,” Suter said. “They can put their voices in there, they can put text in there, they can put pictures of themselves – they can express themselves in every way.”

As part of the project’s Earth Day theme, classrooms will trade Buncees with information about their own parts of the world. Students will research the unique ecosystem and environmental concerns of their locality and combine their findings in a Buncee that they will then present to the other classroom through Skype.

“Long Island has its own environment,” Arturi said. “Bulgaria has its own environment. They each have their own concerns and sensitivities.”

For Suter’s class, that means researching the challenges facing the Long Island ecosystem and all the ways officials and environmentalists are combating them. Suter’s students are writing questions for Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell about the town’s environmental conservation efforts, and Suter plans to bring them to Town Hall so the students can ask him personally.

“The kids are doing research within the community, taking pictures in the community and bringing it all together in a Buncee,” Suter said. “They’ve been so excited about this.”

More than 80 teachers have signed up for the project from countries in every continent except Antarctica.

“The digital connection has just made it so easy,” Suter said. “We’re in Southold, and this other classroom might as well be in Mattituck. How could I have ever done this for my kids without this?”

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Katie Blasl
Katie, winner of the 2016 James Murphy Cub Reporter of the Year award from the L.I. Press Club, is a reporter, editor and web developer for the LOCAL news websites. A Riverhead native, she is a 2014 graduate of Stony Brook University. Email Katie