I reasoned that, through a position of leadership, I could have a greater impact on more students as well as a voice in policies and practices that serve to achieve this goal.
As I enthusiastically embrace becoming President of ITEEA, I think of one of my role models, the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, whom I met when I was six years old. Congresswoman Chisholm was visiting my elementary school, and we all were fascinated by her presence but more importantly her message. She explained to us that her job as a Congresswoman was to help people and make life better for all children. Shirley Chisholm was iconic in my native Brooklyn as she fought for quality education, social justice, and women’s rights long before it was fashionable. As an African American woman in leadership, Congresswoman Chisholm was often marginalized, yet she so eloquently stated: “If they don’t give you seat at the table, bring a folding chair!” In 1972, Chisholm was the first woman to run for President of the United States, and while her bid was unsuccessful, her impact is far-reaching. I learned early in life about the value of taking risks and challenging myself as well as the importance of stepping up and always pulling up a seat to the table.
I didn’t have many STEM mentors or role models in my formative years, but my parents provided an environment that encouraged discovery. They also provided a few core lessons about character, integrity, and spirit that I live by today. My first memory is when I was seven years old and took the kitchen blender apart. Instead of scolding, my father encouraged me to continue working on it, showing me that it was okay to explore and discover things on my own. This type of parental encouragement paved the way for me to continue to explore my interest and pursue a career in technology and engineering.
With my scholarship in hand, I traveled 300 miles northwest to Oswego, New York to college and decided to major in Industrial Arts and Technology—a career pathway that was not typical for women. I was the first African American woman to graduate from the program. I attended my first ITEEA conference when I was a sophomore in college; back then, ITEEA was the American Industrial Arts Association (AIAA). While I was pleased to meet many new colleagues from across the country, there were very few women in the organization. In my professional career, I have been able to dismantle limitations and stereotypes as well as open the door for other women. My career in Technology and Engineering Education has spanned nearly 40 years; first as a middle and high school teacher, then as a district leader, and on to state-wide coordinator and an international leader in STEM education. In the words of the late Maya Angelou, "I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now!"
I had planned to be an architect, but I discovered my love of teaching while working in a summer camp between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was teaching 9- and 10-year-old children about flight through rocketry, and I realized they were riveted to my every word. I was having a positive impact on the group, and they were excited about discovering ways to improve their designs. I realized in that moment that I was able to make a difference in children’s lives and help them discover meaning in the world around them.
Leading a national STEM agenda from a 188-year-old venerable institution has been an interesting paradox that has resulted in many innovative ideas and collaborations within the museum as well as with other entities. In 2006, the opportunity arose to assume a leadership role at the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL®) at the Museum of Science, Boston. It was a dream job that has inspired me to leverage our position as a world-class institution while building STEM leadership globally. The synergistic intersections of formal and informal education and leadership, in addition to our mission and goals, have served us well to raise the bar on the role that informal institutions can play in cultivating awareness and implementation of STEM content in PreK-12 education. An integral part of this experience is bridging my knowledge of education, school leadership, engineering, and technology in an informal education setting.
A cornerstone of the NCTL is the Gateway to Technology and Engineering Project, which was created to help school districts develop strategic action plans to implement K-12 technology and engineering, while introducing educators to resources supporting standards-based curricula and assessments. Gateway was co-founded with my colleague Dr. Cary Sneider; since 2007 I’ve had the pleasure of carrying the torch as Director. In 12 years, Gateway has supported over 100 Massachusetts school districts: 600 educators developing strategic plans to implement STEM education PreK-12. The Gateway Project was recognized by the Massachusetts Governor’s STEM Council as a @Scale promising practice in STEM education. This designation recognizes the long-term impact this project has had on school districts and the leaders in the schools creating systemic and sustainable change in STEM education district-wide. The program has been replicated in Maine, New Hampshire, and Texas, with plans to expand in other states as well.
In my travels, I have observed many pockets of excellence in STEM education in schools and science centers; many demonstrate best practices that we can learn from and hopefully replicate. Ironically, the emphasis on STEM education has been driven by business and industry, so K-12 education is playing catch-up. Informal institutions like museums have a somewhat impartial role to play, but it should be pivotal. The Museum of Science has hosted many events to discuss and plan for STEM education and leadership inclusive of the inaugural meeting of the Governor’s STEM Council and national 100Kin10 Partners Meetings. As a colleague shared, “the museum is a perfect venue, as it is a nonpartisan entity but well-respected for its breadth of knowledge and experience in STEM.”
The NCTL has helped focus our attention on formal education while bridging the connection between the institution priorities. The Gateway Project and our K-12 engineering curricula have been instrumental in building strong relationships with school districts. The museum is seen as a leader in STEM and an invaluable resource for teachers’ professional development and student engagement around the world.
A leader who can cultivate trusting and respectful relationships, while having a clear vision with articulated goals, is essential for change to occur (Spicer, 2004). The essential elements I have learned and experienced are to: (1) value the contributions and learn from everyone in the organization, (2) build relationships, (3) be humble, and (4) cultivate new leaders. My position requires me to frequently spend time outside the museum, but I make a concerted effort to be knowledgeable about what is going on within the museum. By learning about the permanent and traveling exhibits, Omni films, and planetarium shows, I have been able to make connections with people who are looking to collaborate as well as to potential donors. The more diverse my knowledge is about STEM content, the better able I am to build strong relationships that enhance NCTL’s credibility as a leader in STEM education. By focusing on the relationships, I have been able to effectively cultivate connections with colleagues within the museum as well as interact with staff, volunteers, and other leaders. Moreover, the relationships I have built outside the museum with federal government, state, and international leaders have served to expand the reach of STEM education through policies and practices that consistently support this objective.
Building Early and Setting the Table
At the NCTL, one curricula, Engineering is Elementary, was developed to address engineering and technology education in the elementary school while connecting to literacy and social studies to build a completely integrated STEM curricular unit. The program is designed to build on student curiosity about engineering. As there is research to support the importance of starting early with STEM education, there must also be effective STEM professional development for early grade school teachers. Studies by Wheelock College recommend “teacher training with an eye to increasing engineering curricula as early as pre-kindergarten” (2010). Moreover, this is a systemic challenge that needs to engage educators K-12 and be supported by the district leadership in order to have a long-term impact.
After developing a vision and an action plan, the next step is for teachers and leaders to practice what they’ve learned. Effective teaching comes from experimentation and the ability to step outside the box without penalty. Therefore, to develop STEM leadership, it is necessary for professional development training to be put into practice for teachers to experiment, regroup, and hone their skills. How the informal setting applies this to teacher experience is twofold. First, the resources available through the NCTL will only become more useful as teachers begin to determine what does and doesn’t work for them. Second, the informal environment is a safe place to practice and learn new skills in a nonjudgmental arena.
STEM for All
As a leader and an African American woman with nearly 40 years working in STEM education, I am still struck by the lack of diversity in the field and shortage of opportunities for girls and children of color. One of my aspirations is that the achievement and employment gaps for underrepresented minorities and poor white students in STEM will narrow. I have been fortunate to teach in diverse communities; however, I have observed many policies and practices that are counterproductive to student engagement and learning. My pursuit of a career in leadership was motivated in part by a need to make a difference for all students. I reasoned that, through a position of leadership, I could have a greater impact on more students as well as a voice in policies and practices that serve to achieve this goal. There are far too many schools and leaders not addressing the elephant in room—“is STEM working for all our children?” I am encouraged that in the past 10 years there has been greater focus on these underserved groups, but unfortunately progress has been painfully slow.
Building a Network of Partners
A critical need we face is universal awareness and understanding of what STEM education is and why it is important. Implementing any reform is a collaborative process, so everyone needs to be at the table—business leaders, higher education, K-12 educators, and government. STEM education has made tremendous progress over the past 10 years, but we must continue to cultivate those partners for any reform to be successful; the wealth of knowledge must be shared among STEM leaders. For any change to work well within an organization or a school or district, the changes must be able to align with school, district, state, and nationwide standards. As a leader, it is imperative and a responsibility to be knowledgeable about standards, curriculum, and assessments, regardless of a formal or informal setting, and sharing that knowledge is the key to successful reform.
One of the most difficult aspects is to realize that the process of implementing change isn’t always linear. Sometimes it requires taking two steps forward just to take one step back. It is an iterative process that requires constant evaluation to determine the next steps. Some initiatives take time, resources, and a willingness to change that is not simple. There are leaders who realize that multiple factors need to be in place for change to occur—for starters, having a vision and then evaluating resources, developing incentives, and implementing an action plan. This process is cyclic and ongoing and can only continue to progress with an understanding of what has and hasn’t worked.
My journey in STEM leadership from formal to informal education has been a tremendous experience that has taken me to many corners of the world to engage with people in education, museums, government, and business and industry. The lens through which I am able to see education has expanded exponentially, as have the lessons I’ve learned and taught. By shifting the paradigm in education and focusing on what matters—student achievement—I am hopeful that my efforts will not be in vain. I am grateful for the opportunity to lead a very pivotal initiative at a venerable institution. STEM leadership is sometimes very messy—two steps forward and one step back. However, the key is to keep moving and keep growing. I have learned a lot from this experience. Of equal importance is my hope that I have contributed as much to the field of STEM education and to my colleagues in leadership.
Over the course of the years as an ITEEA member I have volunteered on a number of initiatives including standards review, expanding opportunities for women, the Council of Supervisors, and working to expand opportunities for elementary schools. This experience with ITEEA has taught me that if you recognize a need, step up and fill it, you know that there will always be people to support and help you. I’m very proud of all of the colleagues I’ve met over the years across the U.S. and around the world. My international colleagues have been pivotal in building relationships with other nations as well as viewing this work through a new lens. It is essential that we bring new people into our professional organization and inspire others that we traditionally don’t see. Over the past few years ITEEA has made a concerted effort to include elementary educators and informal institutions, and collaborate with other professional organizations—all of which will strengthen us. I am a staunch believer that you grow when you step out of your comfort zone and expand your circle of influence. I acknowledge my colleagues who encouraged me to participate in the leadership of ITEEA early in my career, to join taskforces, the Council for Supervision and Leadership, and subsequently run for a leadership role.
In many ways ITEEA is an organization that epitomizes the engineering design process—an iterative process that allows you to redesign or refine a process. As an organization, we have demonstrated our ability to learn from our experiences and expand our thinking about our future. I’m extremely grateful to have been a part of this journey for the past 37 years, and I am looking forward to leading as your President. I thank you for your vote of confidence and more importantly, offering me a seat at the table!
Yvonne Spicer, DTE, Ed.D., is 2018-2019 President of ITEEA. Dr. Spicer was the Vice President for Advocacy and Educational Partnerships and Boston’s Museum of Science before being sworn in as the first Mayor of the City of Framingham, MA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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