In 2010, I was looking for a teaching job after taking a year off to work on business profile videos. The video projects had been fun and rewarding, but not lucrative, and I missed being in the classroom. I looked through the usual ads, and then the unusual ones, and found a teaching job description on Craig’s List for a local charter school. It was named Walden School of Liberal Arts, and I had passed it many times without realizing it was a school. I’d thought it was a retirement home.
I started teaching science and technology classes that fall. I decided to teach there for five years and give my best shot at implementing integrated STEAM education and project-based learning.
Now, six years later and after many successful student projects, I am leaving Walden to teach at a new charter school in Salt Lake Valley. This hasn’t been an easy decision. I have come to truly appreciate the students and the other teachers at Walden and the freedom I’ve had to experiment. The projects I’ve described in this blog would never have happened at a more traditional public school. I’ve been able to train up a cadre of students who now have excellent STEAM skills and are capable of accomplishing great things. But I have to look at what my goals were for coming here, and I can honestly say I’ve done what I set out to do. There have been obstacles to overcome, but these limits have forced me to be more creative and have probably helped, not hindered.
I was invited to speak at our 2016 graduation, and I chose the topic of “Dare Mighty Things” based on the famous speak by Teddy Roosevelt entitled “The Man in the Arena.” It was definitely bittersweet to be saying goodbye to the school as well as to the students that I’ve worked with for six years.
My New School:
My new school, American Academy of Innovation, is built on the model of students as innovators, creators, makers, and inventors. It will follow a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) structure and include international and local business and university collaborations and career and technical education as well as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education. It should be the ideal situation to implement and perfect the projects I already pioneered at Walden, in an environment that will be more suited to cross-curricular integration. I will also be receiving a substantial pay raise, which certainly helps. It is a brand new school, and I will get in on the ground floor of establishing a culture of innovation and creativity, of academic excellence, and scientific inquiry.
For the last two weeks we have been meeting daily as a new faculty, deciding on the details of our vision, mission statement, principles and core values, policies, etc. I’ve gotten to know the other teachers, and they are as talented and creative a group of educators as I have ever worked with. We had an official open house in the new school on Aug. 18, and I met many of the parents and students I will be teaching. If this is any indication, it will be an amazing year.
I will be teaching chemistry again (which I did not teach this last year as I was asked to teach the new IB Design courses instead). I will also have an elective course called STEAM it Up, which will basically be to take all the fun stuff I’ve done in my Wintersession and Chemistry classes from the STEM-Arts Alliance grants and turn it into a full semester class to explore the integration of arts and history with STEM. It will be a creative, making, totally project-based class. I will recreate and improve several of the projects we did two years ago, including making homemade iron-gall ink, experimenting with natural dyes to make tie-dyed shirts, creating marbled end paper and Shrinky-dinks, designing jewelry from etched and corroded copper and brass, building Steampunk costumes and sculptures, etc. I hope to add a few more projects, such as making blueprint T-shirts; collecting, polishing, and setting minerals to make jewelry; and others. As I have done before (but not as often as I had hoped at Walden), I will establish an end-of-year STEAM Showcase where students will display their work, give mini-lessons, and this time even have a fashion show to let parents see the costumes, shirts, and jewelry they will make.
Since PBL requires students to present and demonstrate their learning to an audience as a summative assessment, it fits right in with my plans. And this time I anticipate getting other teachers involved, such as art, history, and English as my students also create posters, draw illustrations, program games, and write lessons, scripts, and blog posts. Because I haven’t been teaching chemistry actively this last year, I haven’t been keeping this blog site up to data; now you will see many more student contributions and more frequent posts.
I also plan to move ever more to a flipped classroom model. Our periods will be 80 minutes long, and we are expected to only use the first 20-30 minutes for direct instruction and content; the remaining 50-60 minutes are for students to collaborate and build projects that solve the problems we pose. As to how many problems we will present in a year and what those problems will be, we’ll decide that in the next two weeks.
Plans A Through E:
Going back to teaching this coming year wasn’t my first choice. I had several tiers of plans in place, and returning to teaching was Plan D. Plan A was to be chosen as an Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow and spend this next year working for one of the Federal agencies in Washington, D.C. I applied this last fall and made it to the semi-finals round, which meant being flown to D.C. for three days of tours and interviews in early March. I interviewed with NASA, the National Science Foundation (a computer science initiative), and the Department of Energy. I was not selected, even though I thought two of the three interviews went very well. So scratch Plan A.
Plan B was to go back to graduate school and fulfill a PhD in Science Education. I took the GRE in April and was accepted into the STEM Education PhD program at the University of Kentucky, but because of my late application, no more research/teaching fellowships were available. I am barely scraping by with my current teaching salary (combined with some awards and video projects on the side), so I do not have the money to move to Kentucky now. I have asked for a one-year deferment, and have accepted the job at American Academy of Innovation where I can save up enough money to move to Kentucky next summer. Or, if AAI works out well, I will simply stay there. It’s a matter of either doing Problem-Based Learning or learning about Problem-Based Learning; I’ve always preferred to actually do something.
The Return of The Elusive Atom:
By the way, Plan C was to leave classroom teaching and start up an educational content design firm. I’ve wanted to do this for years, and even attempted it in 2009-2010 when I did business videos for clients. There are a series of Ed Tech start-up programs around the country called Accelerators, where chosen education companies are provided office space and seed money to get their product ready for marketing, then investors provide start-up venture capital to finance the new company in exchange for a piece of the action. One of these Accelerators is in Salt Lake City, and it looks promising. Certainly I have enough ideas. The problem is getting them into a finished enough form to apply to the Ed Tech Accelerator program, then finding the time for 12 weeks to solely focus on my products. I also need to have a partner or partners, which is another problem. So far, it’s just been me. But in anticipation of this possibility, I have finally completed editing the front of my old Elusive Atom poster that has sat in limbo on my computer for years. I started it in 1995. I finished the hand painted version in 2002. And this summer I finally completed fixing the digital version. It looks good. Now I need to do the backside text and line art, and I’m ready to print out sample copies to market.
While at the STEM Forum and Expo in Denver, I talked with the new product managers from both Flinn and Nasco, and will try to work with them to make the poster a reality. I also plan to repurpose the illustrations into a timeline and a series of mini-posters on each scientist from the poster, such as Mendeleev or Jabir Ibn Hayyan. I found it fun to get into Photoshop deeply again.
Writing a Novella:
Plan E is a long shot, but something I’m quite proud of. I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing science fiction, and have several good (I think, anyway) ideas. I read last summer that Tor Publishing is starting an initiative to look for new authors to write novellas for their line of e-books. They announced in May that a new round of stories would be accepted, completely unsolicited, on the topics of cyber punk, future thriller, time travel, and other science fiction tropes (not fantasy this time). That’s my chance! So I spent two solid weeks in June working on writing up a book I’ve wanted to do since at least 1995. It’s called Dead Stone Lions, and I had thought about the plot for years. It hits about all of their possible subgenres. I took a couple of days to brainstorm and outline, then started writing. Once I got into it a chapter or two, the writing took on a life of its own. Weird things started happening – new characters appeared, or old characters did unexpected things, and I had no idea where these threads would lead. Then later in the book, these plot points somehow circled back around and became significant, when I hadn’t planned it that way at all. Like the self-aware computer called ISAAC (after Isaac Asimov, for two important reasons) or the protagonist’s brother’s subplot.
The deadline was the end of June, and I finished the first draft late in the evening of June 30th. It came in at 41,580 words, and I had to pare it down to under 40,000 to make Tor’s definition of a novella. So I pared and compressed and edited for several more hours, finally posting the story at about 5:00 am on July 1 at 39,979 words. I was worried that I might be too late, but the submission site was still up. I didn’t dare check for two months what the status of my submission was, because it was such an accomplishment to just get it done. I know it needs further editing but I’ve let it go for two months on purpose to let the ideas ferment a bit longer, then come back with fresh eyes. However, last Thursday (Aug. 25) I received a short e-mail from Tor.com saying that my novella “did not meet their needs.” Well, that’s not a surprise. So now I am a rejected first-time writer. I certainly am in good company.
I hope to announce some day that I am a published author, both for science fact and educational pedagogy, and for science fiction. Some day, once I’ve gotten a few sales under my belt, I hope to tackle a series of books called Trinum Magicum, about a science teacher who discovers the third use of the Philosopher’s Stone. It will bring in all the research I did at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2009, when the plot for this series first started percolating in my brain.
The End of a Dry Spell:
I had quite a dry spell this last year, applying for several STEM related awards but receiving none. The failure of Plan A was just the last in a long line of unsuccessful applications. But things have picked up since. In May, I found out I was selected by the U.S. Department of State as a Teacher for Global Classrooms fellow, and will complete an online course this fall, then attend a training workshop in Washington, D.C. in February. I will travel with 11-12 other teachers to one of six possible countries for a 2-3 week period, beginning in late February through August 2017. We will learn about the culture of the country and their educational system. I don’t know which country yet, but this year the teachers went to Morocco, Georgia, Brazil, Senegal, India, and the Philippines. My personal choice would be Morocco – I’ve always wanted to go there since seeing Casablanca and The Road to Morocco (OK, maybe not the best representation of actual Morocco, but it was fun). I would enjoy visiting any of them.
In July, I opened up a letter that had been sitting in my stack of mail and a check for $1200 fell out. Kind of a nice surprise! I have been selected as the Earth Science Teacher of the Year by the Utah Geological Association. I attended a nice luncheon several weeks ago to receive the official award, and also attended their annual picnic on August 13. The best part for me is the possible contacts this award will bring and how we can get some expert geologists involved at our school.
I attended some professional development opportunities in June and July, including the annual Utah IT Education Conference, where I presented on 3D printing. I also attended the STEM Best Practices conference sponsored by the Utah STEM Action Center. I was able to talk with Dr. Tami Goetz a few times – she remembered me from two years ago when I attended some STEM education workshops in Salt Lake. I hope to apply for a grant from them soon. I also ran into a friend who now runs STEM partnership programs for Utah Valley University.
July 27-29 I traveled to Denver to present three sessions at the NSTA STEM Forum and Expo. I sent in three proposals hoping one would be selected, and all three were (compared with the annual NSTA conference, where I sent in three proposals and none of them were selected). The Denver forum was very busy for me, but very rewarding. I presented to about 90 people altogether, which is the best turnout I’ve ever had for sessions. My session on 3D printing tips had at least 45 people in it. I had supper with a group of STEAM educators, which I hope will pay off in contacts and future opportunities. I could truly say, as in the song Home and Dry by Gerry Rafferty:
I feel tired, but I feel good,
‘Cause I’ve done everything I said I would . . .
The first week in August I took my family on vacation to visit my wife’s sister and brother, who both live in Oregon. We stayed five days on the Oregon coast, in Rockaway Beach and in Waldport. Then we took several days to explore the Columbia River Gorge and the Oregon Trail. I took many photos, saw some amazing geology and even a few grey whales.
A Summary of Six Years:
Before I could start at AAI, I had to finish up and move out of Walden School of Liberal Arts. Since I had decided this would be my last year at Walden clear back in May 2015, and I wasn’t going to be teaching chemistry, I took the opportunity to move most of my chemistry materials and papers home at the start of the 2015-16 school year. I moved my astronomy materials over to the middle school since I was teaching 6th Grade Science second semester, which is mostly astronomy. I kept it all contained, so it was easy enough to take that home as well at the start of summer.
But my materials in the computer lab at the high school took some time. Since the building at AAI was not ready yet, and I didn’t want to have to move things home, then move them to AAI in two steps, I asked if I could wait until the very end of summer to clean out at Walden, which the director agreed to. Once I returned from my family vacation to Oregon, I spent the second week in August getting my materials cleaned out, my printouts and posters off the wall, and the iMac desktop computers cleaned off. I saved all the files I had made over six years onto a 3 TB portable hard drive.
Over the rest of the summer (and since last fall, really) I have been working on putting together a printed binder of all the projects we’ve done at Walden (and others at MATC and before). It started as a supplemental file for the Allen Distinguished Educator Award and was expanded for my trip to Washington, D.C. for the Einstein Fellowship interviews. I’ve added pages for our Deep Space Expedition to southern California in March, and filled in more pages on other projects, trips, awards, and events. I added section caption pages and tabs. There is still much more I could add, but the binder is as full as I dare make it. It came in handy as I’ve presented at open houses for AAI. In the process of creating it, I organized all my Walden work and files onto the new hard drive. I’ve needed to do this for years.
The Adventure Continues:
So there you have it – catching you up on where I am. I wanted to write this summary to explain what’s been happening, but I will write more detailed posts on each of these events as I have time. My commute to AAI will be 45 minutes if I drive and 90 minutes if I take the light rail system, which I hope to do most of the time. It will give me lots of time to write these blogs and stay up on grading.
There is still so much to do. I need to complete the transcriptions of Dr. Graham’s interview on Greek philosophy, then revise the script and complete the movie. I have many videos from my Elements Unearthed explorations that need to be done, and educational products to design, books to write, computer programming languages to learn and computer games to create, and time gets ever shorter. This next year will be an amazing adventure. I hope you join me.