America’s innovators and problem solvers made the nation what it is today: a global power.
Maintaining this leadership position requires educating the next generation of Americans in essential skills of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — collectively known as STEM.
President Barack Obama has said that few American students today pursue STEM educations and too few teachers are well-versed in the subjects. Companies like BP, which was named #No. 1 in STEM hiring and diversity, agree.
And both public and private sectors are working to fix the problem. They’re doing so with the help of educators like:
When Bryan Wunar took his job at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry about 12 years ago, he saw two problems: lackluster attendance and exhibits that were more entertainment than education. As the director of community initiatives, he saw that big changes were needed.
“Rather than going down the road of theme park, we decided we exist for science education purposes, so let’s take that on,” said Wunar, 45, a Chicago native who grew up visiting the museum he now is helping reinvent.
Since then, under Wunar’s leadership, the museum has grown faster and become more actively involved in Chicago education than at any time since its founding in 1933. “Everything we do is to engage you in science learning, to make that accessible and to provide learning opportunities to those who may not have access to them,” he said.
After raising more than $200 million in a capital campaign, Wunar and museum leadership overhauled the space and exhibits. He then set out to develop field curricula that would sync with lessons in the classroom.
Efforts also targeted teachers themselves. More than 70 percent of science teachers in Chicago’s public middle schools had no background in science, Wunar said. He developed programs to remedy this, offering teachers graduate-level STEM education training programs at the museum and facilitating participation by paying for substitute teachers on days that regular teachers were scheduled to could come to the museum and train, as an example.
The results speak for themselves: More than 340,000 students from Chicago-area public schools travel to the museum each year — more than any of the city’s many other cultural institutions — and 40 percent of the city’s K-8 schools have science teachers on their faculty who have been trained through the museum’s programs.
For Wunar, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the job was giving back to an institution that had given so much to him early and countless other young minds. “For more than a decade now, I’ve been able to do for this museum what it did for me as a child.”
In Douglas Vranderic’s math classroom, there is no hiding. Compared to other classrooms, there are fewer kids asking to use the bathroom, going to see the nurse or otherwise looking for excuses to leave.
The reason is simple: “There’s not enough time for them to think about anything but what they need to do,” said Vranderic, 29, a teacher at Houston’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.
Vranderic, who studied accounting at Notre Dame and turned down a job at KPMG to go into teaching, introduced a teaching technique at Cristo Rey known as “Math 360.” In a typical math class, the teacher usually lectures on the topic and students practice solving problems for 10-15 minutes at their desks. In Vranderic’s classroom, the reverse happens. Vranderic lectures for no more than 10-15 minutes, then each student stands at a whiteboard or window and works through problems, making mistakes and learning as they go from Vranderic who walks around the room coaching them through the process.
Vranderic didn’t invent Math 360, but he was instrumental in executing it at Christo Rey. When he and another teacher, who brought the idea to his attention, discussed implementing it with administrators, they liked the idea but said they wanted more data. “So I just started doing it,” Vranderic said.
That was just last March and the results have beaten all expectations. On the next test just a month after implementing Math 360, the average test score jumped from 70 to 80, Vranderic said. Today, Math 360 is being used in three classrooms at Cristo Rey. By the end of the month, it will be in six. This summer, Vranderic won the Kinder Excellence in Teaching Awards for his efforts, which includes a $20,000 prize.
Vranderic said the greatest challenge he faces every day is the false, but commonly held, belief that you’re either inherently good or bad at math. To combat this, he’s posted pictures around his classroom of brains lifting weights. “I tell them mistakes are expected, respected and inspected,” he said. “If they leave my classroom understanding that if they have a growth mindset and they work hard enough, they can do anything.”
When Alyssa Cannon-Banks arrived at Paul Revere Middle School, a STEM magnet school in Houston that serves underprivileged students, she was afraid the school wasn’t doing enough for her students, especially the girls.
“These are kids that go home and sometimes their lights aren’t on,” said Cannon-Banks, 26, STEM magnet coordinator and robotics teacher at Revere. “They don’t have anything to eat, or mom and dad are at work, and they’re by themselves.
She began searching for role models in the community, reaching out to companies in the neighborhood, she said. “BP was one of the first one to respond.”
The resulting relationship between the school and the global energy firm, whose U.S. headquarters is in Houston, has had an immeasurable impact on students’ lives.
It started in 2013, when BP came to help judge the school’s science fair. Scientists, engineers and accountants — almost 40 of them, twice as many as expected — showed up at the school wearing green BP shirts, ready to go. “To think that these complete strangers would give up their day and come spend it with kids they never even met before, I wasn’t used to it,” she recalled. “There were no words for my emotions at that time.”
Cannon-Banks didn’t stop there. When she wanted to start a STEM summer camp, but the money wasn’t there, BP came to the rescue. The company helped organize tours of the company’s headquarters, picking up the tab for transportation and lunch. “Kids were dressed up in their Sunday best,” she said. “It meant a lot to them to be welcomed at BP and they wanted to put their best impression on for the engineers there.”
For the girls especially, Cannon-Banks said the exposure to BP has been an eye-opener. “A lot of girls already have this mindset that is a boys shop,” she said. “We’re trying to open their eyes to show them that women are doing these jobs too.”
Cannon-Banks sees herself in her students, and her work is personal. She grew up in Houston in similar socioeconomic circumstances and recalls the life-changing impact that her first-grade teacher had when she called a meeting with her parents to urge them to send Cannon-Banks to a magnet school across town.
“I do whatever I can to let them know: I was you, and some of these BP engineers were you,” she said. “BP has been a phenomenal partner, and for that, I’m so grateful.”