United Way has played a big part in empowering teachers. That’s why we helped design and plan the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) Externship, held in Boston this past August. In partnership with Boston Public Schools’ BoSTEM program, this Externship immersed teachers into STEM industries and work environments, the latest hands-on tools and tech, and interactive workshops to promote and encourage STEM careers – and future success – for their young students.
We sat down with STEM Externship participant Maura O’Toole, Library Coordinator at Mather Elementary School in Dorchester, MA. (Mather, founded in 1639, has the honor of being the first public elementary school in North America.) Maura shares why the Externship matters, what she learned, and why it’s time for more play – for all of us.
Maura, thanks so much for speaking with us today. Why were you interested in participating in the AEC Externship – what drew you to it?
The library team was asked if anyone was interested in participating and I definitely was, because there’s a lot of overlap with STEM and libraries, but people don’t necessarily recognize that. As a BPS (Boston Public Schools) educator, you wear a lot of hats. And that’s why I wanted to do it. I’m also very interested in technology, the latest things in tech. In the past, I’ve worked for a company that offered low-cost computer training to families. I helped start their program that gave away iPads to non-verbal autistic children. This STEM externship was such a great experience–it checked all the boxes I wanted for professional development.
Maura, was there an “aha” moment during the Externship that really got you thinking about how you could help your students?
I think there’s this huge push – in middle and high schools – for careers. But you really have to catch kids’ interest when they’re little. I grew up in a family of tradesmen where no one went to college. I never really understood what it was like to be passionate about a “career.” I graduated from BPS, but I feel we don’t do enough to make connections for kids: what a child’s interests are to what that child’s career could be.
We talk a lot about kids being doctors or lawyers or what we think are valuable occupations, but we don’t actually encourage them in starting to think about STEM. I was helping a five-year-old boy yesterday and he was telling me about what I thought was a stingray. But it wasn’t a stingray – it was some other crazy animal – and he told me SO much about it! How do you get kids like that to connect their inquisitiveness with interest in the future workforce?
I do feel like we, as educators, are missing opportunities with little kids to get them thinking about STEM, that it’s not just “you’re good at math” – that’s important – but the one message everyone said at the externship was that companies need people for AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) with soft skills: employees who can conduct presentations, be able to collaborate, with a focus more on liberal arts – that was SUPER fascinating to me.
We don’t really know what a kid’s future is going to look like yet. There’s the way that science shows we actually learn, and then there’s the way that kids are taught. There’s such a push for testing, but this externship showed me the importance of getting kids out into a neighborhood and exploring what’s going on.
How can I get my littlest kids working on some of the projects, software, and tools I was exposed to? I’m thinking about what students are good at, career choices for them as they get older. Let’s get kids starting to think about careers a little – and what fields offer the most opportunities.
So how can you apply this STEM/AEC mindset to address opportunity gaps for students?
I seriously believe in the power of play. Building, talking, tinkering. It leads to interest in STEM – but I feel like we don’t do enough play in schools. In my classroom, we do a lot of Lego building and have a Lego club after school. Conceptualization is really important. One thing that my kids like to do is prototyping. If you give them a stapler, and some paper and scissors, they’ll actually make prototypes of things. I think we need more opportunities for that.
Project-based learning is key, and that’s the piece that’s so hard for most educators to feel the freedom to do, but it’s so important in terms of shaping children’s minds and helping them feel like school is exciting and fun. Plus you’re also building skills. When kids are reading, and writing, and doing math in the traditional way, kids don’t always see the conceptualization. But if kids are actually using computer programs, or building prototypes, or using real-word skills (like cooking and using fractions vs. just studying fractions on a worksheet), there shouldn’t be this huge disconnect with the testing culture vs. what we know works. Intrinsically children love this type of learning.
That’s the struggle: to make sure that parents and teachers value the skills students acquire from things like cooking, or sewing, or auto mechanics, because these skill sets – traditionally not seen as STEM subjects – filter into other careers. Both parents and teachers have to value this type of learning. United Way helps with opportunities and connections. This STEM externship empowered teachers by helping us connect with interesting companies and resources – so we can empower our kids.
Maura, you mentioned this love for discovery. How can a teacher encourage that?
We need to think about how kids and adults learn – to give them the opportunity to discover. That was the best thing about the externship. Prototyping and computational thinking doesn’t have to be on a computer. It depends on certain teachers and grade levels that are open to more inventive thinking. And while that’s hard for some teachers, I think there’s room for it.
Since our focus is empowering teachers, how did this Externship empower you?
I never really thought of “careers” as something to talk about in the classroom. That was one of my biggest takeaways. You know, I’m going to look at my school year differently: structure new activities in the library, and focus on projects I want to do with my classes in terms of research.
Sounds like a plan. And since we’re talking about empowerment, how can parents empower awesome educators like you?
I think the parenting piece can be hard. United Way does its part to help encourage parents to join their children for programs and activities. I think it starts with time – time to make connections with teachers. But language barriers are a factor, so it’s sometimes a challenge. We have several science organizations come to school for a STEM day – it would be great to connect more parents to that. And to think about harnessing small cohorts of people to work together. The key is to get parents, and students, and families, and teachers together.
Then, build from there.