Fostering Curiosity in the Classroom: Educators model life-long learning by creating partnerships in STEM industry

David Stitt is an educator as well as community leader through his involvement with the West Sound STEM Network. Knowing most educators wear so many hats, I wanted to find any tips, tricks, advice, or approaches he could share given his extensive knowledge in STEM education. David has some great ideas on how to approach STEM education as well as some practical advice for the best way to dig in!

TT: Having taught chemistry both in high school and at the collegiate level, you are also an instrumental part of the West Sound STEM Network, can you tell us a little about how you became committed to this focus on STEM education?

DS: West Sound STEM is a huge effort by a group of people in a nonprofit to coordinate STEM Implementation in the high school and in public education.

It is a Herculean effort that our general educators and specialists put forth daily. The demands placed on them far outweigh the resources provided. We are trying to help empower teachers of all backgrounds to participate in STEM. We are providing ways to increase personal connection with content, model investigating methods and promoting the integration of STEM approaches that result in a shift away from "we checked the box" to "let's use this approach" when teaching students. It is not a new system, but a support for the one we are working with. We are finding ways to come alongside of teachers to support them through authentic experiences, promote enthusiasm and, as a byproduct, affect change to the current system. 

A lot of times in Washington State, STEM has become a specialist position where they see kids once a week for 40 minutes. What we are trying to do, is work with regular classroom teachers, that are not the specialists, as well as the specialist, to make sure they are comfortable in the process of science. So they are comfortable taking students through the process in a way that students can see that mistakes are exactly how science is made. And that the best part of learning is finding out what doesn’t work. One of the main missions of WSS is to give educators tools (both practical and content knowledge) that allow them to then show and model with their students the practice of engineering and math and integrating all of the technology together.

WSS pulls in business sponsors and business personnel. They come in and do a lot of our professional development and say hey, you know what, when you teach this student how to do an investigation, this is how it would be used for scaling it up to a virtual lab at the Macdonald-Miller company. Or this is how it would work to look at field research at a shellfish farm. We’ve got a lot of partnerships within business and other community members that lend their expertise which enriches it for the teachers that then enriches it for the students. So, it’s a little bit of mindset shift. We’re trying to give teachers authentic experiences which they can translate into the classes for authentic experiences.

TT: I had seen from your website that you were connecting some students with businesses, but to be connecting the teachers with them is great, you’re actually teaching the teachers.

DS: Yeah! Yeah, and it’s become really rewarding in ways that we hadn’t envisioned. When we look at the impact of a particular professional development or a particular training that we do, or there have been times when we’ve set up and skyped in with astronomers from NASA-there’ve been times when we’ve had different business partners-and to get that experience for a teacher just immediately boosts that excitement and that translates over into the classroom. If you can get a teacher involved in that, then you can get that classroom involved in that, and pretty soon they’re off and doing stuff that we had no clue that they were going to take it there. We did a partnership with the University of Washington and they had us partner with an oceanography program where we built some sensors and did some research. From there some teachers went on their own and looked at eel grass restoration in bays that were next to their school. They monitored water quality, looking for explanations in temperature differences- they just kind of took it and ran with it and brought their kids along with. So these kids now have these experiences they would have never had if that teacher hadn’t been provided with the both the tools and the time to become comfortable with it.        

TT: This is exciting, it’s not just a group of students that pass through the system, but you have EVERY group of students that get to learn from these educators. It’s real-time knowledge too, if they’re going out into industry it’s not something necessarily that was in a certification a long time ago.

DS: No, and the changes being affected on it is lasting like you said because it does affect more than just one group. It’s not a program that you send a certain number of students through where you reach 40 kids that year. You reach teachers that year which then reach the kids--so it’s a pyramid scheme, right?! It’s a science pyramid scheme! But in a way that gets both the teacher and the students. It creates a change and an excitement that’s lasting. It gives them the freedom to try things that they never would have before and gives them tools and supplies in order to really authentically attack it in a class.

TT: I bet from your end you’ve seen how it has impacted some of these educators. It must be neat to witness what they’re doing and has to be rewarding from your perspective, being a part of this organization, to then see live in-action results playing out in the classroom.

DS: Absolutely....I mean, we’re all life-long learners, right? That’s why we love teaching, we’re not static people, we want to learn more; we want to be able to bring in new experiences. And being able to see a teacher grow with each experience, and to see teachers become more comfortable and leaders within the roles that they teach, and to integrate more of what they were either not completely comfortable with or to be enriched in their field--is incredible.

TT: If there are educators wanting to begin something like WSS, even if it’s small, do you have any advice for them since you have been a part of it from its beginning stages?

DS: For something as big as WSS, I would defer to Dr. Kareen Borders. She is really a driving force on creating something as widespread as this. She would be able to help you with that type of question from the ground up. I have experience with WSS as it’s been set up, I get contracted in to do professional development for teachers. I’m kind of in the machine as it was already built. It’s gotten bigger and bigger all the time and it’s changed a couple of different ways depending on how the funding has gone. But she would be the one to really get into what would it take to do something on that scale well.

As for what an educator could do on their own, I’d never want to tell an educator to not think big.  But I also want to say, in my personal experience, I find that looking across your district, looking within your educational service district, and looking for how you can make partnerships and inroads with institutions, hospitals, your county medical examiner’s office-we have them come in and they do partnerships with our classes as well-looking at something like WSS, really requires you to look at binding teachers together. A teacher can affect themselves personally without trying to create a whole movement by just increasing their partnerships with people already around them. It brings legitimacy into the classroom when students see that you’ve got partnerships outside of school--because regardless of what we say--there’s kind of a mentality out there that if you can’t do, you teach. At least that’s what the adolescent mindset is. Like, oh, you became a teacher because your plans at NASA failed. Whereas the other way is like, no actually, I really enjoy teaching adolescents, this is where my energy goes and so this is what I’ve chosen to do. So when you’re able to pull in partnerships it increases you as a teacher both in your confidence to be able to take part in the real thing--real authentic experiences with professionals, it shows your class that you are still a learner, and that you don’t have all the answers. There are people that have expertise that go beyond what you have, but you want to show your students that that’s accessible to them. Because if you tell them that you can only learn what I tell you right now, you keep them at an arm’s length from experience. And if we want kids to be scientists, if we want them to be science literate, we want them to experience those things.

 

Teaching youth that they have the capability to seek out answers when something is uncertain and modeling life-long learning is invaluable for any endeavor, not just in science exploration. We are so thankful to David Stitt for sharing his wonderful approach to teaching that in turn becomes a life-long gift for students. An entire world of discovery opens up to them when students realize that answers are within their grasp--if they are simply willing to dig a little deeper.

Stay tuned for our next blog where we delve into more of David’s approach on STEM education, STEM is a Mindset, the only ingredient is a willingness to fail.

West Sound STEM Network

“West Sound STEM Network is a dynamic collaboration of educatorsbusiness leaders, and representatives from local government and the military, working to introduce and link students, teachers and the community to the vast array of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics (STEM) resources in our region. As with other STEM Networks in Washington, the goal is to enhance student learning in these key academic areas.  Our students' ability to understand and apply science, technology, engineering and math principles not only increases their understanding of the world, but also translates to innovation and advancement for local business and industry.”


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