2016 Delaware STEM Educator Award winners discuss makerspaces, VEX Robotics, drones, and women in STEM

The 2016 cohort of Delaware STEM Educator Award winners and applicants included a team of six educators that developed a STEM-intensive makerspace; a Caesar Rodney High School educator who, alongside his students, represented Delaware at Samsung’s premiere STEM competition in New York City; and a veteran STEM teacher who used drones to introduce young girls to the range of STEM fields and career possibilities.

First place winners of the award – which recognizes teachers that demonstrate excellence, innovation, and passion in STEM education each year – received a one-time, unrestricted financial contribution as gratitude for their commitment to their students and to the advancement of STEM in Delaware.

Jeffrey Kilner, Science Teacher and Technology & Curriculum Coach at Indian River School District

Jeffrey Kilner placed first in 2016 for the Delaware STEM Educator Award for secondary education, as part of a larger team of six educators from Sussex Central High School. The team was comprised of a collective of teachers from science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines, who, under Kilner’s leadership, proposed and developed a vision for a student-led makerspace at the high school.

The premise of the makerspace, Kilner said, was to provide access to the technology, tools, and resources students needed to further pursue concepts derived from the classroom, or to venture to explore other ideas imagined outside of their coursework.

Can you elaborate a little more on some of the projects which came about from the makerspace your team created? “We actually started an after-school club where a few of the students who were up there in 2016, they were part of that, and we did some projects that weren’t directly connected to the curriculum. So one of the things we did was we built a drone using open-source plans on Thingiverse and 3-D printed materials. And we got it up and flying, and then had a little mishap last year so the kids are still working on rebuilding it.”

What other educators and roles were involved in the development of this makerspace? “Rob Gibson was kind of the technology [end]. Myself and Britta Cordrey were the science end, and Jill Oliva was the math end. And just in talking, trying to get it off the ground, we figured it would be good to have representation from all of the domains of STEM working on that project. And Kelly Deleon, she’s our school’s media specialist, and we’re in IB World Academy at Sussex Central, so she’s also the IB coordinator. So having her input there, to help see what kind of curricular connections would be there, was the idea then.”

What did you do with the funds from the award?
“So all of that went back into the makerspace for supplies. We ended up ordering a larger capacity 3-D printer. The Lulzbot Taz 6 was the make and model. We bought a bunch of programming kits, like Arduino boards. And they come with jumper wires and breadboards and servos and an activity book. And we have those still available to kids on a check-out basis, so they could check-out the kit, take it home, work on it, and then check it back in. Just some consumable stuff like filament for the 3-D printers… And it’s since expanded as well. Some of the other teachers and some of the other technology pathway areas have put some other tools in the space. We have a glowforge, it’s like a laser-powered cutter/engraver. It’s super cool.”

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards? “I think the biggest one is to just keep an open mind. And have a plan, but be willing to change and adapt. Again, having a print in the education world, it’s challenging to find the time and the space to fit it into curriculum with all of the things that we have going on already as teachers. I think just being flexible and trying to be creative and innovative are the biggest things. Flexibility, innovation, and creativity.”

Kilner now works in the district’s office as a Technology Integration Coach for Indian River School District. Although he is no longer teaching at Sussex Central, he says that the makerspace that he helped found during his time at the school is still being utilized by students involved in the Technology Student Association (TSA) and other extracurricular STEM activities.

Nicole Morey, Math Teacher at Georgetown Elementary School Richard Messick, Computer Teacher at Georgetown Elementary School

Georgetown Elementary teachers Nicole Morey and Richard Messick placed first in 2016 for the Delaware STEM Educator Award for primary education. Together, Morey and Messick developed and co-coached a robotics team and club which eventually became highly successful in competition, ultimately leading the team to compete in the 2016 VEX IQ World Championships in Kentucky.

The program at Georgetown, Morey and Messick said, has also continued to strive to be inclusive of all students who demonstrate an interest in robotics, regardless of experience level. As opposed to other exclusively competitive robotics clubs and teams at the primary and secondary school level which hand-pick a select few students, the spectrum of introductory to competitive level programs offered by Morey and Messick are unique in this sense. Each year, around 67 applicants will be received into the robotics program, which runs year-round, Morey said.

Messick emphasized that although there are strong competitive elements to robotics, the importance of engaging students in this STEM-intensive field in a fun and positive way ultimately takes priority. Additional to the opportunity to compete in a robotics world championship, Messick said that the experience of exploring VEX Robotics1 alongside his students for the first time was also invaluable.

Can you talk more about your experience applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards, in which you both ultimately placed first in 2016?

Morey: “During the 2016 season, we were introduced to robotics. We started in the spring of 2015, if I’m remembering when we started correctly, so then we had the whole year of 2016. We were working with our robotics teams and our clubs and we entered a competition. And in March, one of our teams won the state competition in Dover, and we were able to win a bid to the world competition in Kentucky. So in this whole time that we were doing the competition, we, in turn, were writing this STEM award proposal. So to go through all of that and also to win the STEM award, it was a wonderful year. Just because we were seeing how much the kids were influenced by robotics in our school and that kind of experience, we kind of put that emphasis in our paper. Because they were excited, we were excited – everything just kind of fell into place that first year.”

Messick: “It was a very cool experience to go through the whole application, to put everything together. It was something that Travis Bower, who was assistant principal here, got us involved with. Once we got going, it was a lot of fun to put it all together, taking the time to see what we’re actually doing for the kids. And our [program] is a little different, we take all the kids that we can at the school rather than just handpicking a couple of teams… But it was just a very cool experience overall.”

What did you do with the funds from the award?

Morey: “We pumped money back into the STEM program here at Georgetown Elementary. And I believe Mr. Messick also pumped money into his computer class, here at the school as well. We just kind of split it, so I pumped money back into robotics.”

Messick: “The [VEX Robotics] kits are fairly expensive, they’re over $300 apiece. We each had money given to us separately. So after the taxes were taken out, we both put money back into the robotics program, and I teach in the computer lab so there are a couple things I need in the computer lab there. And then, of course, we took a trip to Hawaii, and Paris, haha. Nah, wasn’t quite that much money. But yeah, most of it went back to school stuff, the VEX IQ. I mean there are tables, there’s all kinds of stuff you need. You need the basic kits but then you also have the other parts so that you can get different operations with the robots, you can buy them separately.”

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

Morey: “Well first off, just the overall word of mouth from other kids. When they’re excited about something, other kids are excited about it. We were in the hallway for a while, and as we were doing our robotics, just because of space in our building, kids who walked by were like, ‘What is this?’ So they’re fascinated. So just stick with it, because it is frustrating, it is tough. However, it’s worth it. Learn as much as you can. Pick one platform – we do the VEX platform.”

Messick: “Especially with the elementary kids, like we work with, I think the biggest thing is to enjoy it. You can’t get too frustrated. I mean, the kids are learning about schematics, and trying to put together engineering journals, and that’s a lot to ask of the kids we have. So just not getting too upset, too worried over it. Just trying to enjoy what you’re doing. The kids typically have a really good time. I mean they can get frustrated, as the adults can too. I’d say the biggest thing is to enjoy it, not to get too hung up on the competition part of it. We were very lucky that we were able to have some success, but we were surprised as anyone that we did. But it’s just something you have to enjoy with the kids.”

In 2020, Messick and Morey are still continuing to offer the robotics program at Georgetown Elementary. And the program has expanded even further, with more students joining, as well as more teachers, including newer and younger educators, having assisted and stepped-up this past year, Messick described.

Central to their original philosophy for the program, Messick and Morey maintain that the opportunity to explore the STEM pillars through robotics remains open to any student who expresses an interest to get involved.

“We thought that was an important part too. If somebody wants to do it then we’ll figure out how to get them in here,” Messick said.

1 VEX IQ by VEX Robotics is a snap-together robotics system that incorporates all four pillars of STEM, and is designed to provide an accessible and introductory robotics package to students as early as the second grade. The standard VEX Robotics “Super Kit” includes handheld controllers, smart sensors, motors, batteries, and over 800 structural & motion components to construct robots from the ground-up.

Christopher Harris, AutoCAD and Technology Education Teacher at Caesar Rodney High School

In 2016, Christopher Harris applied for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards for the first time. Although entering into experience was somewhat intimidating at first, his students’ investment in the project, as well as their already comprehensive STEM knowledge base coming out of AutoCAD and technology pathways at Caesar Rodney, reassured Harris.

Although he did not receive first place at the Delaware STEM Educator Awards in 2016, Harris and his team of seniors had placed first in the state and among the top fifteen in the nation for Samsung’s annual Solve for Tomorrow STEM competition. In 2015, Harris and his group of students had the opportunity to represent Caesar Rodney High School and Delaware STEM in New York City.

What was the application process like? “So back in 2016, it was still the AutoCAD pathway, and we tried to do a lot of projects that brought in outside elements, such as math. They have to be able to calculate how to do the figures and come up with solutions to problems using the AutoCAD software. [The application process] kind of allowed me to show all the different things we do that maybe many people aren’t even aware of, even in local schools.”

What project was the focus of your 2016 application? “We had just recently finished a competition with Samsung Solve for Tomorrow, where some students worked in a group to modify a Power Wheels Jeep for a handicapped student in our Charleston Program, which is for students with disabilities. The student that they designed it for had cerebral palsy, so they didn’t have use of their legs. So they modified the jeep to be able to just be hand-controlled, by push-button. That was the big thing that we focused on that year.”

What kind of students were involved and what responsibilities did they have? “It was a team of seniors. It was three students that were dedicated on that project, that had completed my pathway and another technology pathway, so they had a lot of different skills that they were able to utilize. One of the students that was in my pathway was able to use her skills to 3D print some of the pieces to modify the jeep. Another student that took the technology pathway was able to solder the new buttons in himself, and figure out what were the appropriate buttons and devices to use.”

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards? “I think the biggest thing is to find something that the students connect with. Find something that they’re interested in, because if they’re interested, then they’re more likely to put in the effort that’s required to do the projects the right way. So I’m kind of in a unique situation where my whole job is technology education, so we are constantly doing projects, and the students get to bring in their skills from math and science, and then we teach them the technology and engineering aspect so it kind of encompasses everything all in one. So it’s kind of built in naturally to the course. But the key thing is making the project something that they’re interested in, so that they can get to their potential. Or make it ambiguous enough so that they can make it to their interests. Expose them to new things because they might not know they’re interested.”

The impacts of the experience have been long-lasting for both Harris and the students involved. For one student in particular, whose first exposure with 3D modeling was through the project led by Harris, the experience was a defining moment. When she recognized the potential for engineering and design in serving persons with disabilities, she decided to pursue a career in prosthetics entering college, Harris said.

Cindy Isaacs, Exceptional Cognitive Enrichment Learning STEM Teacher at Indian River School District

2019 marked Cindy Isaacs 30th year of being an educator at Indian River School District. Through both her rich history of experience in STEM education and opportunities like the Delaware STEM Educator Awards, Isaacs finds herself in a unique position to assess community and student needs, she described.

Isaacs first applied for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards in 2016, with fellow educator and Exceptional Cognitive Enrichment Learning (ExCEL) STEM teacher, Dawn Keenan. Although
they did not place first that year, Isaacs was determined to reapply with an exciting new project in 2018.

The GET-GET Girls Program, an after-school program led by Isaacs which introduced a diverse group of 32 girls to a range of STEM fields and career possibilities, ultimately won first place that year.

What was the application process like? “Being a part of the Sussex County STEM Alliance, I had heard about the award. And when I went online and I looked at their goals and their definition for the awards, it kind of helped me in the process of realizing what was needed in our community. And having young girls involved in STEM was definitely a need in our community. So that process of actually going in and filling out the application, doing my write-up, and producing some videos to show evidence, it was very simple and straightforward, very practical. But again, I think their definition and the goals of the Delaware STEM Educators Award, it kind of helped me to see what was needed, so I could incorporate the same ideas into my program of the GET-GET Girls.”

What goals and community needs did you identify for this program? “GET-GET Girls is ‘Girls Engineer Tomorrow,’ and it was an after-school program, in two different schools that had high Hispanic populations, for exposing the girls to different types of engineering fields. To give them an understanding of the fun things that engineering could include.”

What kinds of activities were involved? “We did drones, and the girls were able to build different types of drones, use a laptop as a controller to fly them. They were real quick to realize that their redesign process was the majority of their time, in trying to get them to fly. Not everybody was successful, so they also learned that failure was a part of the learning process. We also had a drone expert, with his professional drone, explain what he does in the [agriculture] industry with the drones. And, also, what was amazing was that the drone expert was also able to go into all of the other engineering fields that are needed in the production of a drone; the technologies that are needed for drones.”

What impact did this have on young girls involved in the program, who were being exposed to STEM concepts and possibilities for the first time? “So the girls were learning that an engineer wasn’t just a mechanic who works on a car. That was the biggest misconception of these girls. I took a survey at the beginning, and they all wanted to be a teacher or a lawyer, a doctor. And in the end, they had done a total turnaround in their career choices. They had to choose the top five that they might like, based on interest, and they did a total turnaround. They had never heard of an engineer, or been exposed to the things that an engineer can do, or the process of building, creating, designing, failing, and trying again. So they were exposed to the engineering fields that are available, and that there are women out there in these careers. It expanded their STEM knowledge, definitely.”

What did you do with the funds from the award? “I was actually able to purchase three more of the drone kits, and I was able to purchase a more professional drone to be used by the highly qualifying drone-flyers. So it was a nice professional
one with a camera. I also reimbursed myself for the supplies that I purchased for the girls. We also did a chemical engineering activity, windmills, and things like that.”

What are your thoughts on the Delaware STEM Educator Awards as an opportunity for educators? “I just see the whole Delaware STEM Educator Awards as a great opportunity for all the educators that see a need, and want to provide STEM opportunities for our youth. Our Delaware educators are just so committed to servicing our students, in the pathways needed. And this award is just a way to say, ‘Hey, I see you, I appreciate your efforts.’ So it’s very good.”

What are your recommendations for educators looking to get students engaged in STEM topics, or considering applying for the Delaware STEM Educator Awards? “I think all educators need to be a part of other groups that are involved in STEM. And Sussex County has the Sussex County STEM Alliance, which is a great opportunity to hear more about STEM in our community and find out about activities that are going on to educate [students] with more STEM education. But, also, to make educators aware of awards such as the Delaware STEM Educator Awards. So definitely get involved in Sussex County, because the information gained will be bountiful.”

What importance do you find for women in STEM? “With the program, the GET-GET Girls, there is such a generation gap in the engineering and science fields, and I think the DSEA’s goals of targeting our females and our diverse population, is right on as far as trying to create a better process for new technologies that will allow these women to balance out the percentages of genders in our STEM fields.”

The Delaware STEM Council was created to oversee the evaluation and improvement of STEM education in Delaware schools. This is achieved through increasing engagement of students to pursue STEM careers, and through broadening 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 STEMoriented jobs. The Council also works to expand the STEM workforce in Delaware, and subsequently grow and attract STEM-related businesses to the state.

A follow-up of 2019’s Delaware STEM Equity Conference, entitled “Rehumanizing the Classroom: Empowering All Students as Thinkers and Doers of STEM,” will take place on April 24th, 2020. Register now.

The next iteration of the Delaware STEM Symposium & Educator Awards ceremony will be held in November 2020 and will be sponsored by Ashland Inc.

Ashland Inc. is 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 and awards ceremony.
For updates on future announcements for upcoming events and symposium dates and locations, further information and additional resources can be found at the official Delaware STEM Council website, https://delawarestem.org/.

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


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.