Lessons from the pandemic: Top STEM educators offer their insights on the future of learning

Kim Williams, science department head at Cougar Mountain Middle School, providing a lesson in genetics during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bethel School District Photo via Twitter)

The pandemic upended education in extraordinary ways, and shed new light on the social, economic and racial disparities in schools and communities across the country.

But how can teachers, students, parents, schools — and the system as a whole — apply lessons learned from the past 18 months to end up in a better place?

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of DreamBox Learning. (DreamBox Learning Photo)

On this special episode of the GeekWire Podcast, we look ahead with a group of remarkable educators who focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) from different perspectives. They are our STEM Educators of the Year for 2021, presented by DreamBox Learning, as part of our upcoming 2021 GeekWire Awards celebration:

  • Lauren Bricker, a former Lakeside School teacher now on the faculty of the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington.
  • Cathi Rodgveller, CEO and founder of IGNITE Worldwide, which works with school districts to promote STEM education and career advancement for girls and non-binary youth.
  • Kim Williams, science department head, science club faculty advisor at Cougar Mountain Middle School.

Joining GeekWire’s John Cook to guide the discussion is Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of DreamBox Learning and a former GeekWire Awards CEO of the Year honoree.

Listen to the episode below, subscribe in any podcast app, and continue reading for edited highlights.

Challenges of remote learning

Kim Williams, Cougar Mountain Middle School: We left on a weekday, and we thought we were coming back in two weeks, and then it was like, “Surprise, we’re shutting down,” which is something that most of us had never experienced in our lifetimes. A lot of our processes weren’t built for that, and so figuring out how we were going to communicate with our varied levels of parents and students and staff, and then just how we were going to help reach our community members and the kids in it, that was the most difficult thing for us.

Cathi Rodgveller, CEO and founder of IGNITE Worldwide. (IGNITE Photo)

Cathi Rodgveller, IGNITE Worldwide: I felt the worst for the kids because the kids were home, and their social lives are everything for them … I’ve been a teacher all my life, and so I know the obstacles you face anyway. Then, having to figure out how to do all of this online. It’s extraordinary.

Lauren Bricker, University of Washington: Feeling that disconnect, and I’m not just talking about the black screens in Zoom world … but that connection piece where we want to make sure that students are still there. It’s just really hard. I have one student who keeps missing class because he keeps sleeping through it. If he was on campus, his cohort would have brought him from one class to another.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson, DreamBox Learning: A lot of students now from K through 20 are feeling disconnected, and some are frankly chronically disconnected. I was talking to a superintendent recently who said that they can’t find 7,500 of their kids. They can’t find them.

Silver linings from the pandemic

Lauren Bricker of the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. (UW Photo)

Bricker: This is going to sound really strange, but in one way, I almost kind of liked the pandemic because it actually highlighted the inequities between student access to technology and resources in a way that forced us to start thinking the educational system as a whole. It’s an opportunity for us to reevaluate what we’re perpetuating and what we’re not, and how we can break the cycles that we’re in. A good example of this was removing the SAT requirement.

I will say one thing that is nice about the pandemic: Zoom office hours are kind of nice. I can open up to students who can’t necessarily do it during the middle of the day.

Williams: Although it was a not a good thing that we were in this, it has opened a lot of people’s eyes to that it is a reality. It’s not just a thing that you’re saying like in a book or reading a theory. I like that piece of it even though it took this. At least it’s in the spotlight. … Until this happened, it’s almost like you hear the story, oh there’s children that don’t have this or children that don’t have that, but until you actually saw it come to fruition, you did not know how bad it was for some of our kids. I think it just takes action. It can even happen at a local level.

Rodgveller: I see change happening. We work with a lot of school districts here, and I see how much people care, and I see the efforts that are being made. every single teacher works so hard. I see the districts making a very real effort to make sure that every child has access, whatever that looks like

Learning how to learn

Bricker: I am hopeful that students who are coming out of this pandemic are stronger learners. Let’s forget about the content, let’s think about how they learn. My fear is that the students who got support and made this transition are going to rise, and that the students who did not get that support are going to fall further behind. And that’s what scares me. Flipping the classroom really means flipping the responsibility of learning onto the student. (I got that from a friend. It’s not my original.) It made me really think: how can I really encourage the students to take ownership in their educational journey, and what are we doing as a system to help make sure that that happens.

Kim Williams, science teacher, science club faculty advisor, and head of the Science Department at Cougar Mountain Middle School. (Cougar Mountain Photo)

Williams: I preach all the time to the kids. You don’t need to know your plants. You’ll survive. You’ll get a good job. You’ll be fine. You do not need to remember all the stuff about traits and heredity, but the skills I’m teaching you are what you’re going to use in your lifetime.”

Woolley-Wilson: We can’t look at a kindergartner and tell them what skills they’re going to need 20 years from now. We don’t even know what industries are going to exist, let alone what jobs. And so, we literally have to teach kids how to learn how to learn and to enjoy it because they’re going to have to remake their skillset over and over and over again throughout their lives.

So I literally think that teachers are learning engineers, because they deal with so much uncertainty, yet they are held accountable for the outcomes. In the tech industry, we have to see ourselves as learning guardians, as well. And we have to partner with teachers and educators to make sure that whatever the future holds that we’re preparing kids to not just survive but to thrive with uncertainty.

The path forward

Woolley-Wilson: Does a child have heat? Does a child have electricity? Does a child have food? Does a child have broadband access? What do we have to do, because we can’t leave all the chronically disconnected. That’s not good for them. That’s not good for their families. I would argue it’s not good for anyone, including all of us here. We’re all tied together. …

If we could have tech companies come together and agree to sponsor STEM educators for a sabbatical, so that they could recharge, they could bring their talents into the technology space, see the application of technology in learning, and then bring that back with maybe some renewal, I wonder if we would keep more folks like you in the field so that you could continue to inspire generations of kids and students.

Rodgveller: What we focus on is making sure that our mentors, that they look like the girls they’re serving, and the girls are able to meet the mentors that look like them and hear their story and know that these women faced obstacles just like they did when they were their age. By reaching into the communities that need it most, we’re able to effect change because if we don’t start at the root of the problem, which is when little girls don’t see themselves in these careers. They don’t have a picture of what that looks like. That’s what we’re focused on changing.

Bricker: Investing in the teachers, investing in the professional development, giving teachers the release that they need in order to incorporate this into their curriculum, thinking about ways that you can add STEM to other disciplines, project based learning. And, I think, treating teachers like the professional they are, making sure that they’re curricular decisions are respected.

Williams: I’m very purposeful about the things I have in my classroom, making sure that all people see themselves represented around, and it’s not even things that I’m teaching like look at this thing. It’s subliminal things, right, like posters on the wall, the choices I do, anything I design or examples I give, or if I see it missing in my curriculum, I’ll add it in to make sure that people are seeing themselves: male, female, gender, it doesn’t matter. I want people to see themselves represented.

Audio editing by Curt Milton; Theme music by Daniel L.K. Caldwell.

Join us May 20 for the virtual GeekWire Awards, presented by Wave Business.

More: GeekWire Awards 2021

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Podcasts Cathi rodgveller Dreambox learning Education Jessie woolley-wilson Lauren bricker University of washington