Meet three teachers who are redefining STEM education – and changing lives

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Oct. 26, 2015, 4:52 p.m.

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:

Bry­an Wun­ar

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.”

Douglas Vran­der­ic

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.”

Alyssa Can­non-Banks

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.”

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