Award-winning educators reflect on their experiences with Delaware STEM

Each year, the Delaware STEM Council recognizes teachers that demonstrate excellence, innovation, and passion in STEM education through the Delaware STEM Educator Awards. The award celebrates teachers from across the state, and from across the elementary, middle, and high school levels. These teachers undertake projects and initiatives both inside and outside of the classroom in service of creating a more comprehensive and robust STEM education system for our Delaware schools, championing academic collaboration and student engagement in the process. First place winners receive a one-time, unrestricted financial contribution as gratitude for their commitment to their students and to Delaware STEM.

 

In 2014 and 2015, a total of six educators received the first place Delaware STEM Educator Award. Among them were educators that pioneered a diversity of STEM initiatives in their respective schools, including programs in robotics, computer science, and engineering. Each educator shared their experiences, stories, challenges, and successes in their journeys in propelling STEM education.

 

Travis Bower, Principal at Southern Delaware School of the Arts

 

Travis Bower placed first in 2015 for the Delaware STEM Educator Award for primary education. During his time as a teacher at Selbyville Middle School, he introduced a robotics program for K-8 students, incorporating STEM concepts borrowed from his background in VEX robotics and as a leader for his local robotics camp. At the time, Bower’s robotics program was the only one at the middle school level in Sussex County.

 

Since winning the award in 2015, Bowers became assistant principal at Georgetown Middle School and, through the new opportunities available to him, was able to implement a robotics program across the entire school district for grades K-12. He is now the principal at Southern Delaware School of the Arts.

 

What importance do you find in robotics, STEM, and the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

“I see the value in teaching our students STEM skills all across the board. It’s really important for them to see what they will have the ability to work with when they graduate from high school and college and start their careers. It’s just amazing to watch, as they go through, just how much they do learn and how much they can use it in their life from day-to-day. So it really allowed me a chance to get the ball rolling for Sussex county on it.”

 

What did you do with the funds from the award?

“I was actually able to use the STEM money that we got from that award to start building programs in all of our Indian River schools. Because of the efforts of not just myself but others that we have in our district that really jumped on board with me, we actually have robotics in every one of our schools in Indian River.”

 

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

“If there’s a will to make that change and to bring any STEM initiative, there are ways to get there. There’s a lot of people in the community that do support STEM and see the value in it. It’s just a matter of reaching out to say, ‘Here’s what I’m looking at and any help you can give, I’ll take.’”

 

Any final thoughts on Delaware STEM?

“As a whole I think the STEM Educator Awards are a great opportunity for educators. There are a lot of teachers that go above and beyond, not just STEM but in whatever area they focus on, that don’t often get the recognition they deserve.”

 

Ruth Fuchs, Librarian at McIlvaine Early Childhood Center

 

Ruth Fuchs placed first in 2014 for the Delaware STEM Award for primary education. At McIlvaine Early Childhood Center in Magnolia, Fuchs currently works with over 500 kindergarten students from across Kent County. As a librarian, her lesson plans involve creative ways of integrating STEM topics into learning opportunities for her kindergarteners. Fuchs continued to pursue her passion for STEM education after the 2014 award, putting some of the award earnings towards developing new lessons and incorporating new learning materials.

 

“I try to integrate, intertwine literacy, and the importance of reading, with science,” Fuchs said.

 

What are some of the creative lesson ideas you used in 2014 to introduce some of your kindergarteners to concepts in STEM?

“I always integrate my lessons with what’s happening in the school. And because I have a science background, my love for science is quite present in my lessons. In the fall, we actually went out and got leaves, and they used hand lenses and took a closer look. In the winter time, we were doing biography books, so I tied in a science lesson with [Wilson] “Snowflake” Bentley. So our students were able to use microscopes, and then I had them use Q-tips to build snowflakes. Based on what they had learned from the story and the little bit of research on snow, they built six-figured snowflakes, all different designs. So it was a flurry of learning.”

 

What was the experience of winning the Delaware STEM Educator Award like?

“Obviously I was flabbergasted by winning the award, when my name was announced. There’s quite a few creative teachers in the state of Delaware and I was obviously honored on behalf of my school district, Caesar Rodney, to win this award. And our district since then has encouraged STEM, so much so that we actually created a STEM class in McIlvaine.”

 

What did you do with the funds from the award?

“I have been able to purchase items for STEM. For example, last year I did a lesson on roller coasters. We integrated technologies, they used their Chromebooks to listen to a book about roller coasters. Then I was able to purchase marble towers, so then they had to, as a team, build a roller coaster, using the marbles as carts, from start to finish. So with some of the money I’ve been able to build and add new things for my library lessons. And also, obviously, books.”

 

What kinds of books did you incorporate into your lessons?

“This past year I did a whole unit on space, so I was able to purchase quite a few books on space to ignite children’s learning through looking through books and getting excited about stars and constellations. So some of the resources from the STEM award were used to purchase more books to put in the hands [of students], to encourage and inspire, and also materials so I can create different lessons. Because when you’re teaching 500 students, to have supplies, that’s a lot. So my lessons always have to be very simple.”

 

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

“If your passion is of science, math, technology, engineering, then the sky’s the limit. To me, your students, their excitement, their ‘a-ha’ moment, fuels my passion to be as creative as I can in the lesson. I would encourage future STEM teachers. They could look out and explore, talk to other science teachers, math educators. There’s a lot of resources that you can increase your knowledge of, incorporating into your classroom lessons. But let the students fuel your ambitions.”

 

Brian Sherrer, Technology Education Teacher at Garnet Valley High School

 

At the time of winning the Delaware STEM Educator Award in 2014, Brian Sherrer was an engineering teacher at Brandywine High School, teaching Processes of Engineering & Design. Sherrer had teamed up with two other engineering teachers from Brandywine School District high schools, Brooks Twilley from Mount Pleasant and Jordan Estock from Concord, for an ambitious, district-wide STEM project and overhaul. With the leadership of Judson Wagner, the three designed and introduced a comprehensive STEM pathway which would ultimately become instituted across the school district. Their collective efforts would further be awarded the first place Delaware STEM Educator Award for secondary education in 2014.

 

What changes are you observing in the ways the students of today are learning?

“Education is an ever-evolving thing. It used to be mostly note-taking, test-taking, and score-driven. Now I feel like there is almost an application of what you’re learning, and that you should demonstrate that through your documentation or deliverables. In my opinion, as students embrace the digital world, social media, and the tools that are out there available for open-source, it’s only right to meet them in their environment instead of trying to hold onto what we’ve traditionally done in the past. And if you’re expecting the kids to take risks about their learning and the projects that they want to take on, I feel like the educators should be willing to take those risks and do, at the end of the day, what’s best for the kids.”

 

What did you do with the funds from the award?

“A lot of the time that we spent on actually developing the curriculum was on our own time after school. We didn’t share a collaborative period or anything like that. A lot of the heavy lifting was done outside the school day. So we basically took the award money and we divided it between the three of us. I just used mine to pay off some debt, haha. You know, it was kind of for the award winner. Somebody could say, ‘Hey, why didn’t you spend it on your classroom,’ but at the end of the day I felt it was earned.”

 

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

“Fast-forwarding five or so years since our winning of the award, I would even say, in that short period of time, just going from what I’ve seen in Brandywine with blended learning, with using learning management systems like Schoology or Canvas – and now being at Garnet Valley. There’s really been a push towards gearing the programs to meet the ever-changing needs of the kids. Anyone that is applying or planning to apply in the future, I think that they should probably take that into consideration, just seeing how there’s a shift towards more of an online learning environment, just with all the tools on the internet available today.”

 

Any final thoughts on Delaware STEM?

“I think good programs and good teachers and the results that you see with students, I think all of that starts at the top. I felt as though we had great leadership through Judson Wagner. We would have never gotten to the point we were at if it weren’t his endless drive of, I don’t want to say perfection but it really was perfection. He wanted to make things the best that they could be, and I feel like Brooks and Jordan also shared that view. And I think that, just as a team, we really complimented each other well, we all shared similar skill sets but also brought our own lens to the whole project as well. Going back to that whole saying, ‘It takes a village,’ it certainly does.”

 

Brooks Twilley, Operations Manager at the University of Delaware’s Maker Gym

 

Brook Twilley was the second member of the first place-winning team in 2014, at the time representing Mount Pleasant High School as an engineering and technology teacher.

 

Twilley is currently an operations manager at the University of Delaware’s Maker Gym, an upcoming workshop space designed to provide access to cutting-edge technology, including 3D printers, wood shop equipment, scanners, CNC machines, laser cutters, virtual reality, and fabric design. The new facility is set to open later this fall and and its resources will be available to all university students and faculty.

 

What was the inspiration to overhaul and institute a new STEM program at Mount Pleasant High School, and Brandywine School District at large?

“When I got there and started assessing the condition of my space, and [I] realized that it was tired and in need of some rejuvenation and new direction. I worked with Judson Wagner, who, at the time was the co-chair of the Governor’s STEM Council. Pitched some ideas to Jud, and he was behind them but I didn’t want it to be just implementing those improvements at Mount, I felt like that was not sustainable. So I reached out to Jordan and Brian and said, ‘Let’s do this together.’ And let’s reinvent what engineering and technology education looks like at the high school level.”

 

What did you do with the funds from the award?

“It was definitely for personal use. At the time, all three of us were young teachers. We were all still struggling to start our families. I’m sure it probably went to the house. Ashland was generous. Ashland as a company, back when I was teaching middle school, they’d bring engineers in for days to just work with my kids. I think that’s amazing that Delaware has a company like that, that’s just willing to put their money where their mouth is, but also their people, I think, are more important.”

 

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

“The most important thing is to not let your inexperience become a roadblock. In that, your kids need you to do this. The students need exposure to things, and without you to do it who will. If you see something, do something. Even if it means you being uncomfortable with it or you not knowing it. Learn with them. I think kids respond to that, and [they] recognize, ‘Hey, my teacher doesn’t need to be an expert but they’re willing and they’re taking on these uncomfortable things.’ And in addition to getting them exposed to something, you’re teaching them a skill, the resiliency of persisting through unfamiliar territory and challenges. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you go and interview the great teachers in any district, that’s the trait you’re going to find. In addition to their generosity, they’re just willing to dive into things they need to but might not know how to.”

 

Jordan Estock, Design and Engineering Teacher at Concord High School

 

Jordan Estock was the third member of the first place-winning team in 2014, representing Concord High School as an engineering teacher.

 

Most of Estock’s work now as a teacher at Concord involves real world problem-solving and application. His engineering students directly work with disabled and special needs students around the state to develop unique and creative engineering and design projects.

 

What was the process of creating and integrating this new STEM pathway for the district?

“We would meet on a monthly or weekly basis and just talk about our vision for what we wanted our classrooms to be and to take the steps necessary to align the three high schools. Prior to this team being put together, each high school was kind of doing whatever they wanted. Some were doing auto shop, some were doing graphics, some were doing wood shop. We moved away from that and unified all three high schools to be providing the same high quality engineering curriculum that we were writing and practicing all at the same time. We were putting it into action as we were writing it.”

 

What kind of projects are you and your students involved in now, at Concord High School?

“That award kind of jumpstarted us to where we are now, but I feel like we’re doing bigger and better things than we were five years ago. This year we’re partnered with Mary Campbell center, we’ve got people working for elementary schools in the district. We had a group come in from Engineers Without Borders for a project in Kenya, and we’re trying to help them with a rainwater collection system, so we’re all across the board.”

 

What did you do with the funds from the award?

“The three award winners split the earnings and all of us took our families out to Iron Hill immediately following the event to celebrate. The rest went to my mortgage.”

 

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

“Get students comfortable using the design process. Teach fundamental skills in areas of CAD, electronics, and fabrication. Connect students to authentic real world problems in the community. Spend time making connections and finding problems in your community, these real world problems are the types of things that are valuable for our kids.”

Robert Gibson, Computer and Information Sciences Teacher at Sussex Central High School, Computer Science Adjunct Faculty at the University of Delaware

Robert Gibson won first place for the Delaware STEM Educator Award in secondary education in 2015. At Sussex Central High School, he designed and built a full, three-year, IT-based pathway in CTE, or Career & Technical Education. The pathway addressed a range of topics in IT, cyber security, and general hardware and software that are relevant to the computer science careers of such high demand today.

 

During that same year, Gibson also received a $10,000 grant from Code.org, the website and organization that created the Hour of Code, a one-hour, introduction to coding event that takes place with educators and students worldwide.

 

Can you talk more about your experiences as an educator in 2015, receiving the STEM award and the Code.org grant?

“The same year in 2015, I was also recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the White House as a national CTE innovator. And so I was able to, that same year, go to the White House and represent my program. And there’s a student group I’m an advisor for, a national group called the TSA, the Technology Students Association, and so I was able to represent the TSA and Sussex Central at the White House. So that was a good year for me. It was quite an honor.”

 

What did you do with the funds from the award?
“The grant money that I won through Code.org I was able to put back into the classroom in terms of resources for the students. So I actually used a lot of the STEM Educator Award to do some professional development stuff for me, in terms of some trainings, and I was able to put it back into what I needed to do to better myself as an educator.”

 

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards?

“The great thing about it is that anybody can do it. So any of your students, whether they’re top athletes, whether they just want to sit around and do coding stuff, it’s something that anybody can do. Any race, any gender, any background. It’s something that’s universal. It truly prepares people for what comes next. Having a background in STEM, having a background in technology are all skills that will better prepare them to be successful.”

 

Each educator from this 2014 – 2015 award-winning cohort expressed common themes regarding what it means to be a leader and teacher in STEM today: a commitment and readiness to serve students, a resiliency to take on new challenges and experiences, and a generosity to actively devote the time and energy into furthering Delaware STEM education.

 

The Fifth Annual Delaware STEM Symposium will take place on October 8th at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington. The annual event will once again bring together leaders, experts, and educators at the forefront of STEM and STEM education to discuss contemporary challenges, opportunities, and future prospects. The examples set by these six previous award-winning educators embody an optimism for the future of STEM which the Delaware STEM Council will be celebrating once more in the 2019 Delaware STEM Educator Awards ceremony.

The Delaware STEM Council was created to oversee the evaluation and improvement of STEM education in Delaware schools. This includes through increasing engagement of students to pursue STEM careers, and to broaden the involvement of women and minorities in STEM fields. For Delaware students not pursuing STEM careers, the Council hopes to spread STEM literacy for all students, to provide skills that are valued in the growing market of STEM-oriented jobs. The Council also works to expand the STEM workforce in Delaware, and subsequently grow and attract STEM-related businesses to the state.

The 2019 symposium is sponsored by Ashland Inc., an American chemical company with global operations in over 100 countries. Thanks to the gracious support of Ashland, among other advocates and sponsors of Delaware STEM, the annual symposium is able to bring together the state’s vanguard of STEM for this day of collaboration.

To register for next year’s ceremony or to apply for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards, visit https://delawarestem.org/symposium-educator-awards/.

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Jan Castro is a junior at the University of Delaware, studying English and journalism. He is a Delaware native from Hockessin and has been a proud student of Delaware educators. After college, he hopes to pursue a career in journalism, feature writing, and magazine writing.

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