When the town where she taught math to middle schoolers wanted to start a class in robotics to lure students into science, engineering, and technology, Kathy Shay took the job.
The class was scheduled begin in the fall of 2013. Students started to enroll. And Shay—a former sales and marketing executive at a healthcare information technology company who changed careers at 46 to spend more time with her own kids—set out to supplement her knowledge by spending the summer earning a certificate in STEM education.
Then the robots attacked.
Well, they didn’t attack as much as fail to show up, victims of an 11th-hour budget cut. And when the students arrived and found that there were no robotics kits to build, they started dropping the class, which stood on the verge of being canceled.
“There were a lot of maybe not-so-unusual challenges but a lot of them all piled together,” says Alyssa Walker, professional development coordinator at the Christa McAuliffe Center for Education & Teaching Excellence, which in collaboration with Framingham State University and PTC, runs the STEM certificate program Shay took at Framingham State.
The tale is symbolic of the problems teachers face in boosting student interest in science and technology, even at a time when there are shortfalls of qualified workers in those fields. And Shay’s success in overcoming hers has won her the debut Pioneer Teacher Award from the coalition that helped to train her.
She “showed extreme dedication and persistence and desire to sacrifice on behalf of her students to give them the best, even in the face of all these different challenges,” Walker says.
Shay’s story also demonstrates that the private sector, rather than the public, is increasingly being called upon to rescue programs that could help to close the science and technology education gap.
She teaches in Duxbury, Massachusetts, a seaside town south of Boston whose population of about 15,000 boasts a median family income of $106,245—more than twice the national figure. Yet even there, a decline in the number of school-age children caused cuts in the education budget that claimed those middle-school robotics kits.
Shay, who lives in Duxbury, doesn’t dwell on that. Relentlessly upbeat—Walker says Shay ended seven out of 10 sentences in a recent email with exclamation marks—she would prefer to point out “how great it is that they have funded a STEM position.”
So she reached out for help. PTC gave her PTC Creo software, so her students could at least build virtual robots. Since she also didn’t have laptops, she arranged to borrow some. The defections stopped. And this fall, when the program began its second year, she got $15,000 from a private education foundation to cover Lego robot kits and her tuition to a Carnegie Mellon University online course in how to teach robotics.
“Basically, they saved my job,” Shay says of these private interventions.
But for teachers like her, she says, scarce resources—even in affluent towns—aren’t the only obstacles to getting students excited about technology, math, and science. So is their own conventional training.
“I like to understand every step of the way what’s going to happen, but when you do that it sometimes limits you,” she says.” Instead, Shay says, she imparts to her students that failing is part of learning. The “great mistake,” she calls it.
“You learn from it. You have to turn education around so kids are willing to take risks.”
Shay now teaches all her school’s sixth-graders, plus two other groups of seventh- and eighth-graders who take her courses as electives. To encourage teamwork—a cornerstone of real-world success in technology fields, say experts—she has the seventh- and eighth-graders help the sixth-graders and high school students help the seventh- and eighth-graders. And when her students want to know if they’ve done something correctly, Shay says, she has them ask a classmate.
All of this directly contradicts the kind of content learning common in the era of standardized tests such as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Test, Shay says, which also can get in the way of some technology education.
“Science teachers are looking at me and saying, ‘This is nothing new, but we don’t have time to do the hands-on stuff because we have to teach so much content,’” she says. “I’m so fortunate that my class is not MCAS-tested. I am able to focus on things that maybe you can’t measure, like creativity, like taking risks, like failing is okay.”
Shay, whose own son is going through the competitive college-application process, says: “We have just taken away so much of kids’ ability to create, the fun in learning. It’s a pressure-cooker. Things are so high stress, high stakes. We’ve forgotten about the need to create, to collaborate.”
Students in her classes watch real-world applications of the technology they’re learning about, including a video of world motorcycle drag-racing champion Reggie Showers, who uses highly engineered prosthetic legs and feet.
“Anything you have an interest in, you need engineers,” Shay says she tells them. “You have to connect it to real life. So I ask, ‘What are you interested in?’ They’ll say, ‘I like ice cream.’ ‘Okay, you can be an engineer and work for an ice-cream company and design ice-cream machines.’”
These ways of teaching STEM “seem obvious, but we don’t do them,” Shay says.
Another problem: Few girls take her elective classes. Last year there were six girls out of 100 students.
“They were like, ‘Robots? Mrs. Shay, we don’t even like Lego.” And to see these girls now, they’re doing robotics and making things work and high-fiving each other.”
She’s still working on recruiting more.
“I use myself as an example,” Shay says. After all, she says, “If I can do it, they can do it.”
Photo courtesy of Kathy Shay