She may be the granddaughter, niece, and daughter of a math teacher and the twin sister of a math/science-oriented brother, but Jennifer Donais, K-8 STEM Coach at Amesbury Public Schools in Amesbury, Massachusetts did not consider herself a “STEM person” at first. It was not until she was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST) in 2016, the highest recognition that a kindergarten through 12th-grade mathematics or science teacher may receive for outstanding teaching in the United States, 8 years into her career as a middle school math teacher that she began to realize that every teacher is a STEM person. STEM is for everyone!
A New Perspective on Teaching
“If you had asked me as a student if I would have anything to do with STEM I would have laughed,” says Jennifer. “You see, I never saw myself as a STEM person. In school, I learned to memorize everything! I didn’t learn the why behind content or try to creatively think of different ways to solve a problem. Something, however, changed in college. When I came home for college breaks I would substitute in my mother's school, who was a 6th-grade math teacher at the time. My mother was known at the school as the ‘math person’ and they assumed that I, as the daughter, would also be a math person. So, as the story goes, I subbed in many math classrooms, and soon, through immersing myself in that experience, having others believe in my math abilities and seeing students learning, I started to see myself as a math person.”
A STEM focus “massively” changed Jennifer’s perspective on teaching. “It took winning a national award to get myself to see myself as a STEM person. I finally embraced science, had confidence supporting students to solve complex authentic problems and I wanted to share this knowledge and empowerment I felt with other teachers. Unfortunately, the problem of being a STEM person didn’t stop just with me. Teachers just like me either felt they weren’t STEM people or they didn’t have time for that with all of our requirements. I became a coach to inspire more teachers to embrace STEM learning inside their classroom culture.”
After two years as an elementary school math coach in Haverhill, MA, then two years as a middle school math coach in her current district, Jenn became the K-8 STEM coach. It was then that she saw the need for vertical alignment of math and science and curriculum and saw the need for support with younger students. Her duties as a STEM coach include providing instructional support and collaborating with the K-8 math and science teachers as well as working with teachers to support implementation of STEM strategies. Ultimately, though, teachers noticed her passion for STEM education and know she wants to spread her passion for STEM to them. “Teachers notice that I prioritize STEM. I believe all lessons should integrate 21st-century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity.”
Implementing STEM Experiences
So how does she make this happen? Jennifer explains, “We started off small in PLCs where teachers were given different STEM experiences to facilitate with their students such as escape rooms and design challenges. They were modeled, co-taught, or discussed how to facilitate them with students. We then embraced pre-made project-based learning activities where students solved problems such as getting microplastics out of the water and modifying a refrigerator for someone with paralysis. After teachers started to feel comfortable with STEM we immersed students into STEM days. We had a construction day where students learned about structure and function while designing a house to withstand a tornado with construction workers on site. We had an aviation day where students learned about hot air balloons and got to see a real one! We also had a CSI day where we had students solve the mystery of who stole Mountain Dew from a teacher’s desk while a police officer taught them about fingerprinting.”
After modeling for teachers what immersing students into STEM looked like many have started to take an active role in promoting STEM in the district. Teachers are asking for more STEM days, asking how to integrate subjects and how to bring more STEM activities into the classroom. “Anytime a teacher wants a STEM day, or an ‘engaging day for the students’ or a way to apply the standard, I am emailed.” Due to this since starting as a coach she has planned such projects and days such as:
How to reduce the impact of flooding?
How to modify a refrigerator for someone with paralysis?
How can we prepare and inspire people in Massachusetts to pursue STEM careers that have the greatest potential for impact? Students took a survey about STEM jobs to see what job would be of most interest to them. They then had a STEM career fair where students were able to talk to people in the career they were most interested in followed by a school STEM showcase where students presented their persuasive essay and interactive presentation to their classmates. They took the best presentations to a Boston Showcase where they had the opportunity to present in front of industry professionals and get feedback from them.
Their next STEM day will be connecting an ELA unit with Science. Students will be challenged to do a model prosthesis to help an injured animal survive in its natural habitat. They are having a veterinarian come in that works at a hospital that does prostheses. The big theme around this project is what does it mean to have a great figurative heart?
Students are Invested and Excited
Jennifer believes framing a task around a real-world problem helps students to see the why behind what they are learning. Students get invested and excited when they understand the why. Students feel motivated because they know they are solving something that will make a difference. For example, she says, “When students solved the problem of modifying a refrigerator with someone with paralysis they put themselves in people's shoes but sitting down when opening the refrigerator and blindfolding themselves. This helped them to have empathy for the situation. They were now invested as they knew their innovation for the refrigerator would be a design that could universally support all people.” Having students solve a real-world problem helps students to really go deeper into the design thinking empathy phase so they can truly look at different perspectives of the problem and put themselves in other shoes. “I showed a video recently to teachers about the future of work. It showed how fast technology is progressing. Instead of inspiring some teachers about why we need problem solvers and worried some teachers that ‘robots can take over the world.’ I think this a great example of why we need students to focus on the empathy phase in a real-world problem so they can put themselves in each other's shoes so that when a newest innovation can make people uncomfortable, what can we do to make that innovation work for more people?”
Jennifer is very dedicated to being an educator. She actually knew she wanted to be an educator since she was 5 years old! Her mother, aunt, and grandfather were all math teachers and her mom is now actually on her local school committee, still giving back to the education community. She has been awarded the Air Force Association 3rd place National Teacher of the Year in 2021. She is an international STEM trainer and has gone to the United Arab Emirates to facilitate professional development to teachers throughout the country and to train them in STrEaM Education (science, technology, reading, engineering, art, and mathematics). As the PAEMST (Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching) Alumni Representative, she increases engagement among alumni between the state and national level. Most recently in this role, she developed the first-ever Massachusetts Teacher STEM Fair. This was an event for teachers to see themselves in STEM. Teachers had opportunities to code the Boston Dynamic Robotic Dog Spot, pilot a plane, and engage in STEM activities such as making a platform for Artemis, making a math algorithm for fitting as many pallets as possible in a "truck" and many other activities.
Why It's Important for Students to Learn About STEM Careers
So why is it so important to Jennifer that her students learn about STEM careers? She says, “Students feel like right now if they don't think they are good at math and science that they can't go into a STEM career. That can't be further from the truth. Industries are looking for students who can think of ways to solve problems and that are creative and flexible in their thinking. They don't need to memorize multiplication facts to get a job. Having students learn more about what type of careers are out there and what the big ideas are that they are looking for can get them down a path to be excited and engaged in getting a STEM career. We don't know what jobs will be out there in the future as things change fast with the latest technologies and innovations. We do know that students need to be able to solve problems to help us in the future. We also know if we can expose students to jobs and problems they will be more prepared for the future. We also want to make equity in the STEM workforce. Right now we have a low number of women in the workforce. We need to expose all students to STEM so they can see themselves in STEM.”
About the author:
Meghan Raftery is a curriculum consultant with special interests in authentic learning, literacy and content integration, and student engagement. She can be reached at meghanraftery.com.
Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!
Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career