Interview with Judson Wagner, co-chair of the Delaware STEM Council

Delaware STEM Advocates

This past week I spoke at length with Judson Wagner who recently accepted a position as a Physics and Engineering Teacher at Brandywine High School. This will be Jud’s fifteenth year teaching high school science, but the first time he has taught in six years after leaving Concord High School to work as a supervisor for various STEM positions in the Brandywine School District. Over the past six years, Jud been vital in building up STEM awareness in the Brandywine School District and has worked as the supervisor in STEM Education, Career and Technical Education, and Instructional Technology. By going back to teaching high school, Jud hopes to take leadership role in the STEM culture that he helped create as a supervisor and continue this progressive movement from the classroom. Jud is extremely qualified in educational leadership and his mission is to use these skills to inspire other teachers, influence the spending and allocation of government funds, and create a ripple affect with his impact on the Brandywine School district to influence the state of Delaware as a whole. This interview dives into the past twenty years of his career, what drives his vision for STEM in the Brandywine School District, and what he believes future holds for STEM in Delaware.


DSTEM: How will your new position as an engineering and physics teacher differ from your old position at Concord as a physics teacher? Obviously, the engineering part will be brand new, but will you alter your physics curriculum at all?

Jud: We’ll start with physics itself. I do plan to teach it differently. I won’t change a whole lot because I was relatively successful when I left the classroom at Concord High, but with the new system there are a lot more tools at my disposal than I had before. In the last few years, the Brandywine School District has made great gains in the area of technology education and I’ll now be able to use Google platforms and other new technologies to aid my teaching that weren’t available six years ago.


DSTEM: Brandywine HS has a state-of-the-art 5,000 square foot STEM Lab, how will this factor into your use of new technology when teaching physics and engineering?

Jud: The STEM lab is the other major difference between Brandywine and Concord. To make it easy on scheduling, I’ll actually be teaching a physics class in the engineering lab. With 5,000 square feet, I’ll have access to all kinds of digital fabrication tools, digital design tools, which could potentially make physics a really interactive and stimulating subject for students.


DSTEM: During your 14 years at Concord you created two websites, and to help as a platform for students to learn and share information. Will you bring these websites to Brandywine, if so will they be any different?

Jud: Those websites were sort of my “sandbox” early in my career. Physics as a subject is relatively concrete, meaning you can visualize and physically understand most of the concepts. However, the topic that I always had trouble explaining to students was time, because time doesn’t have any smell, touch, or taste. You can’t see or feel time, which makes it harder for students to understand. So I had to ask myself; how do I convey how things change with respect to time, because you can’t do it by writing on a blackboard. Even when a student sees a demonstration in real time, they don’t have the opportunity to go backwards and rewatch if they missed something or were confused. So that’s where I felt that creating animations would be a great way to convey things that are very difficult for students to grasp. When I made these websites (in the early 2000s), the Internet was on the rise and I knew how to code in HTML and Flash, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine these factors into something that would help me in the classroom.


DSTEM: Have you kept updating these websites as your career has moved forward and as technology has advanced?

Jud: Two things happened in my career that moved me away from these websites. As I got into working as a supervisor, I began to distance myself from physics so I spent less time working on developing these websites. Also, my two websites were built in Flash, which was under scrutiny at the time by Steve Jobs and Apple. When I heard this, I started playing with a different kind of animation that uses HTML and Java Script only and could be used on any device (PC, iPhone, iPad, etc.).


DSTEM: So you do still use animation to convey different physics concepts, but how you built these animations had changed a lot from when you first started.

Jud: Yeah, I call them “layers”. The last thing I want is something that is too visually overwhelming with too much information, so I try and show the same simple animation multiple times but have a way to toggle layers on top of that. If I want students to see vectors, or a trail of how things move over time, I can use graphs with toggles where you can turn the steps on an off as they rewatch this event, learning each “layer” separately and then combining it to fully understand the complete picture. It makes students not be passive and actually engage with the material.


DSTEM: As a visual learner, I vividly remember certain physics topics going over my head in high school because they were too abstract to grasp when taught out of a textbook or off computer slides. I’m sure your animations are incredibly helpful in that regard.

Jud: A lot of physics is extremely abstract. I always thought physics was the ultimate STEM class because it did combine science with mathematics in a way that not many other classes do.


DSTEM: Speaking of STEM, a major part of your career is involved in STEM supervision in the BSD. How will your new teaching job effect how you balance these two careers?

Jud: Sustainability is something that we as a district knew we had to think about six years ago when STEM was a minor piece of the Race To The Top plan. Reflecting back now, I realize that the reason why we have STEM education in the BSD isn’t because of me as a supervisor but because of the investments and the methods of some of the teachers. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Jordan Estock at Concord High School or Brooks Twilley at Mount Pleasant High School or Heather Handler at Talley Middle School and Jacqueline Chesworth at Mount Pleasant Elementary. These are teachers who not only have made a huge difference with kids, but have made STEM a common word among families and parents, have gotten us into the newspaper because of their achievements and what their kids have accomplished. In a nutshell, the movement of STEM education has been through the teachers. For me to go back and become a teacher, I’m hoping to add to that.

To show you some evidence behind this, we did a survey at the end of this academic year of elementary level teachers. As a supervisor, I’m always wary of adding more stuff to the plates of these teachers because they are already dealing with so much like RTI, math standards, new curriculum, etc. In this survey, we asked them to develop their own growth plan for the next three years, based on what they believe will be the most successful way of teaching and which topics will have the most impact. 31% of them said they wanted to continue and strengthen STEM and STEM based learning. To me, that is a critical mass. It is the beginning of a movement, and exactly what you want as a supervisor.

From a supervision standpoint, you need people to clear the path for those teachers. When I was at the district office, the supervisor of science and recently the supervisor of mathematics have incorporated more STEM into what they do. So while I begin to teach again, they will still be there as people who see the big picture, make the right connections with funding, recognizing accomplishments, all of the things you need to occur at a district level.


DSTEM: Five or ten years down the road I’m getting the sense that you see yourself continuing to pursue both supervision and teaching, as a way to keep driving the direction of STEM growth, but also participating in this movement yourself as a classroom teacher.

Jud: Exactly, so one of the things we do at Brandywine is have a ten year plan. Mine definitely involves staying active at a district level. We just had our STEM camp which was made up of elementary and middle school campers as well as campers from a high school robotics camp. It worked well for families with kids at all three levels because they could drop all their kids off at our STEM camp instead of having to juggle two or three separate camps. During pickup, we had this display that showed the levels of progression from an elementary level of thinking (habits of mind, growth mindset, learning from mistakes) to a middle school level (more project based learning) and finally to a high school level (humanitarian approach to STEM, using engineering to solve problems, etc.). I think the work that Jordan Estock has done at Concord High School, whether it was the MIT Invent award or the AbilityOne Challenge, his kids are getting national recognition for developing tools that are meant to help others. These are the things we need to share to our school board so that we can replicate them elsewhere in the district. To me, this is what STEM is all about. It’s not realistic for a specialized charter school to think they can accomplish all this in four years; you need to have long-term progression to get kids to that point.


DSTEM: You hold three supervision positions in the Brandywine School District; Supervisor of Instructional Technology, Supervisor of STEM Education, and Supervisor of Career & Technical Education. In which of these positions does your work pertain more to STEM in state of Delaware as a whole, rather than just the Brandywine School District.

Jud: So I am employed by the Brandywine School District so the work I do there is meant to directly improve STEM in the BSD. However, these improvements also have ripple effects that can also affect STEM awareness levels in Delaware as a whole. I also hold a position on the Delaware STEM council, which focuses more on STEM in the state of Delaware itself. The three positions I hold in the BSD that you listed above are somewhat interrelated as well. If you consider Career & Technical Education, that is something I picked up in the first four months of working at the district level and immediately felt a connection between revitalizing Career & Technical Education and ushering in good strong STEM Education. Having this view and pushing for it at the federal level allowed me to put a lot of pressure on the department of education to really think about the hires they were making. I think their hiring of Luke Rhine to lead that charge and creating the C&T Education STEM office was huge. You can see how we were trying to accomplish in Brandywine has had greater effects around Delaware.


DSTEM: It seems that Brandywine was one of the first school districts in Delaware to really put an emphasis on STEM six years ago when you began working as a supervisor. Is this accurate?

Jud: It’s kind of a funny actually, we have these STEM labs at our secondary level which are sustained with CT funding. We also used some of our Race To The Top funding to help feed these labs by getting the new equipment, renovating them, and making them look like the spaces we wanted them to be. So now, we’re getting all kinds of traffic in and people are wondering how we afforded all this. In reality, we just used our Race To The Top funding in a different way. It’s hard for people to respond that because from a Race To The Top perspective, each district had their own plan and their own way of tackling STEM, but different districts decided to spend their money in different ways and I think the way we spent ours was with a long term mindset, something that is paying off now six years later.


DSTEM: It seems like a large part of these 3 positions is how to manage budgets and capitalize on available resources. What is the culture like in Delaware regarding spending money on education? How do you think it compares to other states?

Jud: I think Delaware and Tennessee were the first states to get Race To The Top money, with STEM as an option of what you could spend it on. In the states that followed, STEM was required to be incorporated with these funds. I think the fact that we have a pretty reputable STEM presence nationally is phenomenal, and I think it goes back to the culture of Delaware. I think about presenting to the Board of Education with Dr. Terry Gray on science standards and expecting a ton of push back and resistance from what had happened in other states, but in Delaware it wasn’t intense at all. It is almost like we’ve been waiting for nationalized standards in science for awhile. We embrace it, which makes my job incredibly exciting because the potential is endless. You rarely find people who are anti-STEM.

Thinking about my own district and career in technical education, where I got the most pushback was the elimination of programming surrounding auto corps where students were changing oil and working very hands on with cars. However, we got rid of that to make room for something that will give them a much wider skill set, using digital tools and applications to solve problems.


DSTEM: I know you’ve worked closely with a number of policy makers and politicians throughout the state including the current governor, senator, and Ted Kaufman who used to represent the state. What have you learned from working in the public sector and how has this knowledge positively affected your current jobs?

Jud: When I think about the experience of going from a classroom teacher to a district level position to working with the governor, it was a pretty intense transition. What I learned more than anything else is a systems way of thinking, looking at how things are interrelated and work together. I do a ton of listening and take in all different ideas people have. Trying to find a place for all these ideas is tricky work, but also very interesting work. The STEM network is incredibly important. A question I always ask is; how do you help different treads get connected from one place to another so a person with one interest or desire can play a role in the bigger picture? In the classroom, I can use that skillset. I know now that teaching is more than just the relationship between me and my students, but it’s the relationship between me and parents, other teachers, and everyone else who wants to invest in my students as well. I’m always asking myself how I can tap into that and make those connections. Asking those questions will help me be as successful as possible.


DSTEMWhat do you think the future holds for STEM education and the STEM economy in Delaware?

Jud: To me, there is huge opportunity in Delaware. I shared the statistic about the 31% of elementary teachers that want to incorporate STEM to their three year plans. These are teachers who aren’t strong in math and science, and picked a teaching career that is as far away from STEM as possible. Now they are pushing to expose their students more to STEM. There is huge potential in Delaware, more so than anywhere else in the nation. The funding is there, it’s just about using that funding the right way.


DSTEM: Last year you received your doctorate in Education from Wilmington U while continuing with your career as a teacher and supervisor. Why did you want to become a doctor? How will you use this degree in the years to come?

Jud: That’s a really interesting question. Six years ago I was actually a little insecure. Most people go from the classroom to a district level position after multiple year as an assistant principle, a principle, or some other kind of coordinator/supervisor. For me to just jump that far, there was a part of me that felt underqualified and that somebody made a mistake. Going for that doctorate gave me the confidence I needed to believe that I belonged in this position. The things I learned and are able to draw on through that program totally change the way I view leadership and administration. I’m much more confident in my mission and vision.


DSTEM: At Wilmington University did you concentrate on a specific type of education for your doctorate?

Jud: The education leadership programs at Wilmington University are broken up into 3 parts; educational leadership, educational leadership in higher education, and organizational leadership. I picked educational leadership in higher education, which was kind of an academic curiosity for me. I was pretty familiar with the K-12 system but I wanted to learn more about higher education. It was pretty interesting digging into that area. The big question is how does that degree serve me going back into the classroom, and I think it comes down to what leadership actually is. I left the classroom to help build up STEM programs because I wanted to demonstrate leadership. In reality, I was demonstrating leadership at the classroom level. STEM education in the Brandywine School District is what it is not because of what I did but because of the teachers that I empowered. They are the leaders of this movement. I don’t think I would have realized that if it weren’t for that degree.


Judson Wagner:

Judson was a physics teacher for 15 years at Concord High School, as well as Department Chair. For the last 6 years he has been the STEM coordinator for the Brandywine School District in Delaware. As an educator, Mr. Wagner has been recognized with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST); the Siemen’s Advanced Placement Award for Teaching; and the Cable Industry’s Leader in Learning Award. Mr. Wagner was appointed co-chair of the Delaware STEM Council by Governor Markell in 2010.

Interview on behalf of Delaware STEM conducted by Zachary Yonda – Zach is a passionate STEM advocate as well as a devoted student athlete on the men’s basketball team at Swarthmore College. He is currently pursuing a degree in economics.

Interview with Judson Wagner

Written by Zachary Yonda

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