2015 STEM Educator Award winner speaks about future of education in Delaware

This previous week on July 6th, I had the privilege to interview Travis Bower, currently the assistant principle at Georgetown Elementary in southern Delaware. Before Georgetown, Travis has worked in various school districts teaching middle school science, directing a Gifted Students program, and creating a science camp that uses common household chemicals to show kids how the brilliance of science can be found within their own homes. He has built his career upon a deep passion for STEM, most prominently seen through his love for robotics. While he considers it just a hobby, Travis is the creator of the VEX Robotics club in Manassas Park (who competes internationally) and brought the VEX platform to Georgetown where it continues to grow. Through robotics, he has positively influenced the lives of hundreds of young students and fueled their interests in STEM. Travis strongly believes that the future of STEM in Delaware is bright, and that the opportunity to invest in and build STEM culture is there. His passion is contagious, visible in his responses below. I hope you enjoy learning about his story as much as I did.


DSTEMWhat does STEM mean to you?

Travis: STEM to me is a misnomer, and I feel it should be STEAM, and include the arts. So much of the engineering and design process that has a strong foundation in creativity and ingenuity that we should really include the arts into the acronym. Part of the reason I love robotics is because it requires a certain aesthetic factor. Not only should a robot be functional, but each has a unique, artistic design that adds a whole new dimension of creativity and simulates the brain in a completely different way. To me, STEAM, or STEM is not just about subject matter, it is a way of thinking and problem solving that extends beyond the four areas that compose it. It is about problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and communication that has existed for decades, but was set aside through the No Child Left Behind movement.

When I was in middle school, each year, we did a variety of projects that were cross-curricular and extended beyond the realms of each area. Looking back, those were STEM activities, and were some of the most memorable and meaningful lessons I learned. In education, we really need to continue our efforts to teach students to think and be critical of their ideas in efforts to strengthen their understandings, and be curious about how the world works.  By doing this, I think we will create well-rounded, lifelong learners that will be prepared for their futures.


DSTEM: How did you grow such a strong passion for education & teaching STEM?

Travis:  It has always been an interest of mine, and the methodology of STEM in education has really challenged me. I have always thought that students should be their own guide to their education, and it has really been something that I strive to teach. As educators, we want our students to innately be curious and to be driven to learn their entire life, and STEM provides that opportunity. One thing that I really enjoyed about teaching Science, and STEM at Selbyville Middle was the inquiry based learning approach that I used. Project Lead the Way is based on that model, and it really challenges students to think. It’s amazing to give students a problem to solve and have them find their own answer. It’s more fun for them, and more fun for me as a teacher. I strongly believe, if I’m not having fun teaching, they aren’t having fun learning. I tell my students all the time, I could teach you anything you want I just have to find a way to show it to you.


DSTEM: What role did teaching STEM play in shaping the trajectory of your career?

Travis: I’m a science teacher by training, and have always had a scientific curiosity.  When I first started teaching in Manassas Park, VA, I taught middle school science, and realized that the population I served was struggling with their performance in science. To try and help, I created a summer camp with a grant I received from the district’s education foundation to help reinforce the content I taught. I worked together with NSF and the local police department to help get the camp off the ground. Jokingly, I called it my “Kitchen Science Camp,” because despite its complexity everything I taught was using household chemicals (egg whites, toothpicks, strawberry DNA) and I could run a week long camp for less than $300.

I soon found myself in the role of the Gifted Coordinator for my school, and to add an inquiry-based curriculum, I piloted what was at the time Google’s App Inventor program with our middle school students. Since Google is open sourced and generally supportive of engineering, it was easy to apply to get into the Google market and give every student access to the software. I gave them a basic crash course in programming using the software and gave them the assignment of creating an app that we would showcase at our “tech symposium” at the end of the semester. Kids ran with it, using their creativity to make everything from gaming apps to one that alerts you when dinner is ready. The students loved it and we had a variety of district administrators come who were very impressed with our efforts. Overall it was a fantastic experience.

Shortly after, I met Denyse Carroll, who I met previously when she worked at Micron Technology, and really got me interested in Robotics. If you aren’t familiar with Denyse, she is a incredible person whose energy and passion is contagious. She has been a huge source of inspiration so far in my career. Denyse helped me start the VEX Robotics club in Manassas Park, and within two years, helped me build a program that was competing at the world level. She taught me about “coopertition,” and really how much is involved in STEM. Coopertition (cooperation and competition) is the idea that you help your competitors succeed so that the overall competition is stronger, and both parties are better off. The passion she shows for her students, and the undying determination for success that she instills in them is amazing, and I strive to be like that.

When I began looking for administrative positions, I found myself talking with Indian River School district, and really showed an interest in their robotics program at Selbyville Middle School. I laid out what I thought we could do to build the program, and before I knew it, I was packed and leaving Virginia for sandier places to teach. When I began at SMS, I had the idea of building the robotics program not just at SMS, but through the district and the state. My wife Mary has been supportive the entire time, and as soon as we moved to Delaware, she encouraged and helped me to start working on those goals.  She helped me organize a robotics tournament at SMS last year, and has been a great sounding board and motivator for the program I’ve been working on at GE.  My vision of making every school within IRSD having a STEM or robotics program is moving quite a long with her help and ideas. I’m working on creating programs at some of our elementary schools, and have brought robotics into our ExCEL program for fourth and fifth graders.


DSTEM: Robotics is clearly a passion of yours, why is robotics important to the education process and preparing students for future careers?

Travis:  My may reason for enjoying robotics so much is that it includes a variety of STEM skills. To me, it’s the best “bang for your buck”  In VEX, FLL or VEX IQ, not only do you use the design process to go through the creating of your robot, but you also need to know how to program your robot, which is a separate field of study.

At competitions, students learn need to give presentations to judges as well, which teaches them to be strong communicators and collaborators.  Judges look to see not only how well they use the design process, but also how they can communicate their ideas, and work well with their peers throughout all levels of the competition. Plus, when they are competing, students quickly learn how to adapt their robot, design or approach, which allows for quick thinking and problem solving.


DSTEM: Tell me a little about the program you’re developing for STEM students in robotics.

Travis: At Georgetown Elementary, we started a robotics program that primarily deals with students in 3rd -5th grade using the VEX IQ platform.  We had 70 applicants and were able to have two six-week sessions of 35 each. Working with Dickie Messick and Nicole Morey, we taught basic building and programming skills.

The governor visited our first session, and the students really had a good experience showing him what we did, and how interested they were in STEM.  We attended Del Tech’s STEM expo at the Owens’ campus, and held several parent nights to showcase our talents to our families.  It was really successful, and we are excited about next year.


DSTEM: Where do you see this program heading in the future? What is the future importance of robotics in Delaware education?

Travis:  Our program next year will expand to have more teams for a longer amount of time.  We’re looking to have 7 teams ready to compete, and will host the state’s first VEX IQ tournament on February 4th.  We’re hoping to have more than just our seven teams competing, and are trying to get other elementary schools in our district, as well as anyone who has a team throughout the state.  The top ranked team will earn a bid to compete at the VEX IQ World Championship in Louisville, KY in April.

I think by starting to have more events like this, we can really work to expand STEM programs throughout the state.  Mike Fitzgerald and Melvin D’Souza and I are trying to expand VEX programs throughout the state for Middle and High school, while trying to reach the younger students as well. If we can have more programs started within the state, we can really start to have schools consider and implement stronger STEM programs.


DSTEMYou were an award winner at last year’s STEM awards, what was that experience like and how has it helped you going forward?

Travis:  The whole experience with the award was exciting and humbling at the same time.  It felt great to not only be recognized by the Delaware STEM council, but also to meet my peers who are as dedicated to the cause as I am.  I’ve tried to connect with some of the other winners, and working with Rob Gibson, they now have a robotics program at Sussex Central, and are looking to have a competitive team next year.

As far as going forward, one thing has proven to be a benefit is that the recognition seems to have opened doors to help me work with others to build STEM programs in their schools.  Though the students of Georgetown Elementary are my top concern, I do what I can to work with other schools to make sure that all students have access to a high quality education.  As an educator, our primary goal is to provide educational opportunities for our students, and I truly believe that all students are our students, and any educators with expertise in an area should share their knowledge with our students.


DSTEM: In your opinion, what does STEM mean for the larger community and the state?

Travis: STEM is a pathway that we need to really invest in for the state, and the efforts of various pockets and groups are slowly making progress. Having worked in an area where STEM is prevalent, and where there is a strong technology industry to utilize, I see the potential of what we can do here.

The southern end of Delaware is still agriculturally centered, but there is a lot that we can do to bring STEM fields into the area.  As technology becomes more available, we can provide opportunities a lot easier to our students and develop programs with local businesses to link them to our schools.

I’ve seen in Wilmington, there has been a great deal of effort to start STEM initiatives, and as much as they have put into them, it was disheartening to see some of them struggle.  Everyone involved knows what STEM can do, but the hardest part is trying to get the rest of the state to see it and it’s potential. I really applaud the efforts of those involved in creating the STEM Academy, as it does have a great deal of potential, but losing their charter was a huge setback to the initiative, and I hope they can work towards finding a new approach and are not discouraged by the setback.


DSTEM: STEM careers are plentiful for those who pursue them, how do you think we get kids involved with STEM, and more importantly get them involved at a young age (k-12) so that they can be prepared for a future in STEM, regardless if they attend a 4 year college?

Travis:  The best way to get them involved is to start them young, and reach all demographics if possible. Utilizing summer camps, expos and other activities are great pathways to reach all students. The way I foresee being most effective has two approaches. You need to create a pipeline to get students involved in all grades, and you need to make sure you reach all demographics.

When VEX IQ was first released a friend of mine, Yolanda Farmer, and I added it to Manassas Park’s robotics club. We created a program called STEMLET (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Learning English Together), with the idea of teaching STEM to ELL students. Our goal was to provide them the opportunities to learn STEM skills in an atmosphere that was not as competitive as the VEX platform was. After a year or two in the program, we saw that those still interested were transitioning to VEX with the same skills and abilities as those that were in VEX the entire time.

In Delaware, I am working with a similar mindset. I’ve developed partnerships with the Del Tech Owen’s campus to help build a bridge between our students and theirs. David LaFazia and I are working to tie the two schools together, and we already captures a great deal of interest from our elementary students, and as they continue their education, we’ll be able to expand more.  If we can create outreach opportunities that allow college students to work with high school students, high school with middle school, and middle with elementary school, students will be involved in STEM their entire career, and foster a genuine interest in STEM.

There’s a really interesting book called “The New Cool” that speaks of a school that started their FRC program, and in follow up articles about the program, cite that students in fourth grade are already starting to figure out what they can to do get into the high school club.  I think if we can generate that kind of interest with our programs, students will be interested.  The success I had at SMS, and what I’ve started already at GE this year, have really made students interested in the STEM programs.


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

Travis:  I think it’s an opportunity we need to really invest in and take the time to build up. With the federal funds that Del Tech received in 2015 to help reach minority students, we should be able to create opportunities for our students, of all demographics.  One of the things that Senator Carper said that I really think we need to look into is that if we want the STEM jobs to develop throughout the state, we need to make sure that our students are prepared for them.  I feel that by focusing on programs to create learning opportunities, they will come.

In today’s world, youth participation in STEM is more important than ever. Careers in these fields are abundant, and it is incredible important that we push young minds to follow their passions for STEM through grade school and college. After speaking with Travis it is clear that he is the perfect example of the type of educator we need for STEM growth in the United States. I would like to thank him for his time and inspiration.

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.