Countdown to China!

Less than a week before I leave for China for my trip with the International STEM Fellows. We will be visiting (and teaching in) Chinese schools in the Hangzhou area. This is a wonderful opportunity and I’m excited to be going to an area of China that I have not visited. In addition to the 90-minute lab that I will teach 2 or 3 times to Chinese middle school students I’m one of the four teachers (out of the 12 going) who has been asked to prepare a 30-minute presentation on STEM education for a regional education conference.

Preparing for this experience has been a bit difficult. We are not sure what supplies and materials will be available to us so we need to pack nearly all of what we need for the labs. That made me change my topic as I wasn’t going to pack glass test tubes and beakers! My lab is an engineering design challenge – the students will build their own water filters. So most of my materials are small and don’t weigh much – water test meters, coffee filters, cotton balls, cheesecloth and the like, and I’m anticipating being able to find plastic bottles, clean sand and gravel and dirty water in China!

We won’t have translators although the students and Chinese teachers know some English (more than the amount of Chinese I know, I’m sure) so I had my oldest daughter make me a video with the help of one of her Chinese friends and fellow students at the University explaining the lab. I also have dual language hand-outs and lab worksheets. It was funny to see the response of all the teachers when we were told that there would not be a translator in the classroom with us – the middle and high school teachers looked somewhat dumbfounded and anxious and the elementary teachers just smiled, shrugged and said in a cheerful voice ‘That’s okay – we’ll just diagram it and act it out!’ Well, of course – they’re used to talking to people who don’t speak that much English!

My oldest daughter will come home from college to look after things while I’m gone and our relatives are just up the street and across the street so she will have help if she needs it. The kids are pretty self-sufficient and used to taking care of the animals so I’m not expecting problems. I am expecting to miss them like crazy as I have not been away for more than a day or two before. I’m also worried about expenses. I was able to get the trip cost paid for through Donors Choose but that did not include buying lab supplies, gifts for Chinese teachers and officials, rental car to get to Chicago to catch the plane (and get home from Chicago) and leaving money at home for gas and food. With my daughter’s appendectomy bills coming in we are stretched even tighter than usual (and usual is to the breaking point).

Thankfully I don’t need much for the trip – I’m borrowing my daughter’s suitcase and packing light. I’m not buying anything extra for the trip aside from a travel umbrella (weather forecast is rainy) and one of those neck pillows for the long plane flight. I do plan to buy travel insurance – too many planes have gone down in the past decade and the Chinese drive like crazy so I figure my chances of being in an accident are slightly higher while traveling! And if anything does happen it would be good to leave the kids a little better off than they are now.

Hmm, rereading what I’ve written I see I’m slightly more anxious about this trip than I was letting on to myself! So to end on an up note – I really am looking forward to the experience. I plan to bring back all sorts of video, resources, connections and ideas to my schools to help our teachers. I’m excited about the networking possibilities – I’ve already been asked to get involved in some other education committees and events because of the trip (yes, even before going!) and I foresee that this will be helpful in my late life career. I enjoy traveling and am grateful for the opportunity to make more meaningful connections than those usually afforded on a tourist trip. So wish me (and the kids) good luck!

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Somewhat undefined, but a good fit so far

That’s how I would describe my new job. It doesn’t have a job description, the fellow spearheading the whole STEM effort quit to take a new job right before school started, and there’s no all important (in education) evaluation rubric. The principals I report to don’t really know what I should be doing. Luckily I’m a self-starter and am committed to making our STEM program work so I’ve hit the ground running (hoping that I’m running in the right direction).

As Secondary STEM Coach I am a resource for the Junior High and High School teachers who want to bring hands on project based learning that connects to real world problems into their classroom. Although I was warned that the High School teachers were resistant to change (okay – that’s what the Junior High teachers said) they have jumped right in. In the first 5 weeks of school I’ve been asked to provide information on building model brains (psychology teacher), for hands on activities to help students demonstrate their understanding of ratios and proportions (math teacher), to help make the cardboard boat regatta more academic (PE teacher, whom I paired with the physics teacher), to help with a project where students build electric guitars to study sound waves (physics teacher) and to add STEM to the student’s English unit that culminates in an intensive research paper on Van Gogh.

I have an office at the Junior High and an entire classroom at the High School (which is sort of backwards as the only class I teach – Computer Science in Science – is at the Junior High). I’m also helping both schools by researching potential science ‘textbooks’ as it’s new standards and textbook adoption year. I have a lot of autonomy – something lacking in most teachers’ work lives – which I enjoy.

I would like a little more structure – since it’s the first year of a new program we are feeling our way and I suspect sometimes going down blind alleys. It would be nice to have a professional development program for teachers – preferably something already developed and tested and established like Project Lead the Way but that decision hasn’t been made. So in the meantime I try to hunt up resources and connect potential collaborators and encourage teachers to think outside the box and give some control of learning over to students.  I’m starting with teachers who want to give it a try – more will come on board as they see us having some successes – and that number is keeping me hopping!

I’m also preparing for my trip to China as an International STEM Fellow. We leave a month from today! We had our first meeting as a group this past Saturday and found out that we would be teaching several classes of 45-50 students without a translator. The elementary teachers among the group were unfazed, “We’ll act it out, and use diagrams!” they proclaimed while the secondary teachers exchanged nervous glances. I’m rethinking my planned lesson and hoping Google translate is relatively accurate!

We will be in Hangzhou, China – the lovely city that just hosted the G-20 summit. One of the things I’ll be doing while there is taking a lot of photos and videotape both for myself but also for our social studies teachers to use in their Asia unit. To that end, because my only camera is on my cell phone, I’ve written a Donors Choose project to fund a decent digital single lens reflex camera: If it’s funded soon I’ll take it with me.

I gave a presentation on STEM to the Junior High teachers this morning and one of them sent me an email afterwards. It said, in part, “you did awesome this morning… this is a fantastic position for you!” It is. I feel much less stressed and more engaged. I’m learning something new every day – sometimes every hour of every day and am working closely with a lot of adults who appreciate what I’m doing for them. It’s a good fit.

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School is in session

We are all back in school now and settling into the routine that guides the larger part of our lives. It’s an old routine, but also new. New for me with my new position as a STEM Coach instead of a classroom teacher and new for the kids as they move up a grade to different teachers and classes (and in my son’s case to a new school – junior high). We are still struggling with getting to bed on time and up so early in the morning; sleeping in is an aspect of summer we all enjoy. It’s commonly in the high 80s and low 90s with dripping humidity which makes it even more pleasant to escape to the air conditioned schools!

Summer ended (the vacation, not the season) with an unexpected event. The weekend before I returned to school my oldest daughter had to have emergency surgery. She was volunteering at a camp for kids when she started having a sharp pain in her side. Ever the stoic, she ignored it for a day, taking ibuprofen and hoping it would get better. The camp didn’t have a nurse on staff so she finally texted me to come get her. We went straight to urgent care and after waiting there for 2 hours they sent us to the emergency room.


Where we waited some more until in the wee hours of Sunday morning, after blood tests and a CAT Scan, we were told she had acute appendicitis and needed surgery. Luckily she came through with flying colors and was released Monday. She then had a bit of a relapse due to an infection but fought that off and is on the mend.

My new job has gotten off to a slow start as the week before school started the assistant superintendent (who oversees the STEM program) resigned to take a new job! The new assistant superintendent is my old principal. These two men, while friends, have diametrically opposite ways of thinking and doing things. The first is a strategic, long-term planning sort, the latter a jump in and get it done fellow. Even so he hasn’t wanted to jump in on someone else’s planned path but to blaze his own. So we are backing up to go forward and if you have to do that it’s best done before you really get started!

I’m working in both the Junior High and High School and have a small office in the former and a large classroom in the latter. I’m teaching one class – computer science in science class- at the Junior High and consulting with teachers on ways they can bring collaborative, hands-on STEM projects into their classroom. For instance a social studies teacher who has a unit on Africa coming up wants to do a STEM project on drought. The 7th grade science teachers have a unit on soil so we are looking at some projects on what sorts of soil retain water. And the PE teacher at the high school does a cardboard boat regatta that’s hands on and lots of fun but wants to make it more academic so we’re getting with the physics teacher to add some math and physics to it.

I think this job will be a good fit. It’s very creative and requires a lot of research which is my forte. I’m enjoying teaching one class and the kids are very engaged. We have covered the basics of’s programming system (StarLogo Nova) and are about to program a computer model of an epidemic. I’m co-teaching so next year the science teacher can take over the class (and maybe I’ll co-teach something new). I have a lot more freedom (no more first lunch at 10:14 AM, or hall duty) and I’m feeling like I can breathe again. I’m hopeful that this year, and the STEM program will be a success.

Posted in 2nd Career, back to school, education, school, science, STEM | Tagged , , | 3 Comments