An Agent of Change in STEM Education

 In pictures-of-practice

Gina Schilling, a science teacher at Hill Middle School in Novato, California, first stumbled upon STEM teaching methods while participating in a 3-day workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area. U.S. Satellite Laboratory led the workshop and focused on one of its award-winning programs, Signals of Spring-ACES (Animals in Curriculum-based Ecosystem Studies). This standards and classroom based program teaches students about marine animal migration through different strands: biology, chemistry, Earth Science, math, geography, mapping and the environment.

Students collaborate in small groups. They develop process skills by designing models, conducting experiments, and creating tables and graphs. They interpret NASA data in expert groups. In Ms. Schilling’s 7th grade classes, students used Earth imagery to make inferences to explain the movements of marine animals as the students tracked various species such as seals, seabirds, sea turtles, sharks and Polar Bears. Students interacted with scientists in their online Analysis Journals. She noted that students intuitively linked their understanding of animal migration to conservation by expressing how human actions on land impact marine animals out at sea.

She also provided enrichment opportunities in marine science outside of the classroom, including mole crab monitoring in San Francisco beaches, summer marine biology snorkeling trips in Florida’s Key Largo and annual local Beach Cleanups. Through the implementation of this program and success in her class, she won a $5,000 grant from Best Buy to purchase five computers and a printer for her classroom. Ms. Schilling took advantage of Signals of Spring-ACES’ unique approach to integrate STEM. It was popular with her students.

Her next STEM project involved physics and a desire to incorporate physics lessons on motion and speed with hands-on and real-world applications. As an extension for her gifted and talented education (GATE) students, she used her school’s Study Hall period to help her students construct solar cars. As a result her students twice won 2nd place for the distance competition at the Junior Solar Sprint Challenge. This was sponsored by UC Berkeley’   s Society of Women Engineers at the Lawrence Hall of Science.

Then, there was a pending threat of her school’s closure. Ms. Schilling was excited when her principal addressed the need for change to help save their school. The principal proposed they give their school a new focus and become a STEM magnet. Unfortunately, an informal focus group of parents rejected the strong focus on technology while teachers rejected the threat of additional work. Through her principal’s encouragement, Ms. Schilling eagerly went ahead with their plan on a smaller scale. She was asked to begin a STEM-based elective to get some of the disadvantaged students in her school excited about learning.

She leveraged a project she worked on from Summer 2010. Ms. Schilling had been selected as one of four educators in Marin County to begin a MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) program. She incorporated her work in her new elective. MESA is a 40-year-old program which was developed by UC Berkeley as a pre-college intervention to initiate more interest for their engineering department. MESA has expanded to junior high schools nationally and was featured in the PBS documentary “The Innovators” as a solution to developing the next generation of innovative engineers and scientists.

Her MESA elective consisted of twenty 7th graders, many of whom earned basic scores in their STAR tests, failing grades, truancy issues and received free or reduced lunches. Her students participated in STEM-based lessons and activities that culminated in individual or team projects. Her students competed against other schools in “MESA Days” at local universities. Culminating projects included Egg Drops, PopsicleTM Stick Bridges, Human Eye Models, Mousetrap Cars and Pre-Algebra and Speech competitions. Her students rose to the occasion and placed in every category at the preliminary competition. In addition, at a field trip to attend Great America’s Physics, Science & Math Day, her students won 2nd place in the 2011 Cardboard Boat Race.

Soon, parents began inquiring how to transfer their children into Ms. Schilling’s special course. She expanded MESA to two middle schools and one high school in her district. She was invited to join a local chapter of Cal-PASS, an initiative that collects, analyzes and shares data in order to track performance and improve success in elementary school through the university. Her local chapter organizes monthly “STEM Un-Conferences” which brings together math, science and technology teachers to promote collaboration and STEM professional development.

Ms. Schilling is working her learned Endeavor strategies for her students, but recognizes how the marine animal tracking program was a catalyst for reform and STEM implementation in her school and district. As a NASA Endeavor Fellow and an “Agent of Change”, her ultimate goal is for her students to aspire to become scientists and engineers.

For 2011-2012 she joins Hamilton Meadow Park, a K-8 school where she will continue to teach Life and Physical Science and a STEM elective. Her goal is to utilize her training from Endeavor to make STEM teaching a reality in all of her classrooms. She has plans to initiate interaction with the elementary faculty to create a buddy science program with her middle school students and to include Family STEM Nights to spread the word about her applications to the curriculum.