Saturday, July 16, 2016

EnCorps Encore

The EnCorps STEM Teachers Program contacted me in early 2014 to ask if I could present at one of their programs. After learning more about their mission to recruit, help transition and support experienced STEM professionals in their efforts become teachers, I agreed.

I was impressed when their executive director, Elaine Guarnieri-Nunn, came to Los Gatos High School to meet with me. She described the EnCorps program and we discussed my own transition from an aerospace engineer to a high school science teacher. I recalled it being difficult to get accurate information about what was required to become a teacher. I remember resenting being told by the math credential department at San Jose State University that I was not qualified to enter their program with "only" a BS in aerospace engineering and eight years of experience as an astrodynamicist.

I also remember considering changing my mind about becoming a teacher because of the murky bureaucracy I was trying to navigate. I can't help but wonder how many potentially great teachers have changed their mind about leaving their current profession by the unnecessary and burdensome requirements and financial costs of the credential process. Programs like EnCorps can help them navigate these difficulties and inspire them to continue.

My first Encorps program was the Northern California Spring Institute held at Microsoft in Mountain View California in 2014. One of the sessions gave teaching job application tips. It included mock job interviews conducted by a local middle school principal. There was a session on using maker activities in the classroom, and breakout sessions for prospective math and science teachers. 

I was in charge of the session for science teachers. I presented Peer Instruction and other techniques for making classroom instruction interactive to about 20 EnCorps participants. The day included time scheduled for the EnCorps participants to network. Hearing them talk about what they were going through brought back memories of my own experience. It sounded like things had not improved much for those wanting to change careers to teaching. The existence of the EnCorps program was a ray of hope.

I didn't hear from EnCorps again until early this year when their new executive director, Katherine Wilcox, asked me to present at their Summer Residential Institute in June. I agreed to do a breakout session for science teachers. This program was much more extensive than the spring institute. It occupied three days and participants stayed overnight in the rooms at the Clark Kerr Campus at UC Berkeley. 

After looking over the program, I decided to attend all the sessions on Saturday. The Garden Room was packed at 9:00 AM with over 150 professionals interested in teaching STEM subjects. The first session was about some of the more recent ideas on pedagogy with some insights into teacher credentialing programs. The co-presenters were Rick Ayers and Kevin Kumashiro from the USF School of EducationI found myself saying "I wish I would have known this when I started" over and over during their talk. Their friendly disagreements about some of the finer points of pedagogy demonstrated that teaching is more of an art than a science. 

The next session was about project-based learning. It was presented by a highly enthusiastic Bob Bachmeier. He is the Sacramento coordinator for Project Lead the Way. This is an engineering curriculum that is finding its way into many high schools, including mine. Bob explained the many benefits of having students learn by working on long-term projects that are relevant, authentic and challenging. We got a taste of this approach with a quick bridge building activity. 

Bob inadvertently demonstrated how to resume teaching after a disruptive event when two hawks flew into the room. They screeched, collided with the windows, and swooped low over our heads. The large doors were opened, they found their way out, and Bob immediately picked up where he left off!

For my session I selected things I wish I knew about when I first started teaching. I also was asked to incorporate elements of NGSS. I started out with scientific models. To demonstrate the essential elements of scientific models I brought my collection of Mystery Tubes. These are large, sealed PVC pipes with four ropes extending from them. Students are asked to develop a model of the inside of of the Mystery Tube by making observations and conducting experiments. It is the kind of activity that can engage middle school students and adults. 

I had difficulty getting them to stop experimenting so we could move on to a discussion of whiteboarding with this and other class activities. I then passed out clickers and demonstrated Peer Instruction with a short lesson on Newton's Third Law. This proved especially effective for the participants who were interested in becoming biology teachers. They started out not being able to respond correctly but by the end were confident of their answers. I finished with a quick look at online homework and my experience with WebAssign. It took me many years to learn about and implement all of these effective techniques but it only took them ninety minutes. 

There was a math breakout session run concurrently with mine by Lybroan James from the New Teacher Center. This organization applies the growth mindset to teachers, believing that every teacher can become an effective teacher. My only regret of the day was not being able to attend Lybroan's presentation.

The last session was presented by Aaron Vanderwerff and his team from The Lighthouse Community Charter School. They described their Creativity Lab, a maker-based instructional component to their curriculum. To demonstrate their approach they challenged the participants to form teams of five and construct a chair from cardboard that could hold 180 pounds. This gave them a good idea of how engaging this form of instruction can be. 

The session shattered the idea that some of these future teachers might have about spending their class time enthralling students with lectures. Changing perceptions about the teacher's role in the classroom might be the most important achievement of the EnCorps program. The teaching profession has always had a respect problem because many people think they know what teaching is about because they watched people do it for many years. This can create a perception that teaching techniques are static and that there is little left to learn about pedagogy. This one day of the three-day program did a lot to dispel these myths.

At the end of the day there was a reception that included food, adult beverages, and lots of great conversation. Encorps recognized the achievements of their graduates with awards and the potential of their future teachers with scholarships. With the critical shortage of STEM teachers and the increasing need for STEM graduates, it is good to know there are organizations like EnCorps addressing these needs. If you are considering becoming a STEM teacher or you know someone who is, I urge you to have them contact EnCorps today.

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