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Ideas and Solutions

5 Leaders Who Are Empowering Students Through STEM Education

Meet TFA alumni who are fighting to make Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education accessible for all children in their communities.

November 7, 2018

The TFA Editorial Team

“STEM is the future.” This is a phrase we often hear in education. After all, a STEM education teaches students the skills necessary to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and analyze information, as well as opens up a wide range of career possibilities.

But the STEM workforce continues to suffer from a lack of diversity, as children of color, children from low-income backgrounds, and girls still face disparities in access to STEM courses in school. Underrepresentation in STEM does more than just hold certain students back from joining the growing STEM workforce: It also limits future innovation, as valuable voices and perspectives are being left out. In celebration of National STEM Day (Nov. 8), we’re recognizing five leaders in the movement to make STEM education accessible to all students--because STEM is the future, and every child deserves a high-quality education and an opportunity to shape a better world through these fields.

Tory Cottle (Arkansas ‘15)

Tory discovered her love for STEM as a student at Virginia Tech, where she saw how a STEM education opens doors for college students--particularly first-generation college students. But it wasn’t until she joined Teach For America to teach science in the Mississippi Delta, and witnessed the joy and excitement in her students’ eyes with each new experiment or observation, that she realized science education was her true calling.

Tory Cottle

After the corps, Tory was approached by her superintendent to develop a summer program focusing on enrichment rather than remediation. She created a STEM summer camp, where students dissected pigs, analyzed the quality of Mississippi River water, and explored chemical flame tests.

Tory continues to teach at her placement school. Encouraged by the overwhelming interest in the STEM summer camp, she worked with parents and community members to start the Cougar Pride Robotics Team. And thanks to an Alumni Innovation Grant from Teach For America Arkansas, the team received funding to build a MakerSpace lab with 3-D printers, 3-D pens, and various robots.

“My goal in this work is simple: to make opportunities and experiences available to the students who desire to have them,” Tory explains.

“If our students develop interests in STEM and decide to pursue a career in a STEM field, it could mean a revitalization of the economy in the rural Mississippi Delta that could, in turn, break the cycle of poverty in the area.”

Tory Cottle

Ben Nguyen (Las Vegas Valley ‘14)

Since he was a child, Ben has been passionate about creating things and testing concepts through trial and error to gain a greater understanding of the nature of the universe. His approach to STEM education and leading his school’s robotics club is informed by these lessons of his youth: that through reflection and careful adjustment, failure is a valuable learning process.

Ben Nguyen

In his first year as a physics teacher at Sunrise Mountain High School in Northeast Las Vegas, Ben joined the school’s newly formed robotics club. Eventually, he took over as a lead mentor of the program.

Ben stresses that every student has the potential to become an engineer--all it takes is diligent practice. And in his years of leading the program, a substantial number of his students are now attending colleges and technical schools in hopes of pursuing careers in engineering, computer science, business, and natural sciences.

The robotics club has received funding from NASA, Tesla, and other sponsors for its exemplary works in teaching students the principles of robotics and manufacturing. Most recently, the club has earned support from the state of Nevada to now provide a four-year Career and Technical Education (CTE) pathway designed to teach students about advanced manufacturing, robot process automation, and computer science.

“It has been an incredible honor to lead the robotics program towards its next chapter, and I know that we have so much more to learn and build upon,” Ben says.

“When I began my work as a teacher four years ago, I found it exceedingly rare to hear my students talk about becoming engineers, technicians, or any profession in STEM. Now, things are different.”

Ben Nguyen

Tara Tran (Charlotte-Piedmont Triad ‘16)

For Tara, STEM has always been a passion and a challenge--a fruitful struggle, as she calls it. She credits her upbringing with instilling in her a love of math; instead of getting dolls or toy cars for presents, her parents gifted her incubators, graduated cylinders, and science experiments.

Tara Tran

After graduating college with a major in chemistry, Tara joined Teach For America to teach high school math in Charlotte-Piedmont Triad. “Math is beautiful in so many ways, and it permeates so many different fields,” Tara explains. “Beyond formulas, when you teach math, you’re teaching students critical thinking skills. You’re teaching them perseverance, grit, and how to work through problems. I was able to teach integral life skills through my content.”

Tara puts her analytical skills to good use as a Recruitment Manager for Teach For America. And, last summer, Tara continued her STEM education journey by participating as a coding instructor at Kode with Klossy, a free summer coding camp for girls ages 13-18 across the United States. Model and entrepreneur Karlie Kloss created the camp in partnership with Teach For America, and all instructors are corps members or alumni. In 2018, Kode with Klossy opened 50 camps in 25 cities to over 1,000 young women. The two-week program focuses on women's empowerment and addressing the growing gender gap in the STEM workforce.

Tara teaching girls how to code at Kode with Klossy. Ready Set Productions

During the coding camp, the girls opened up about their worries and the difficulties they’ve faced navigating STEM studies as girls. Kode with Klossy was a safe space for them to learn computer science, but outside of the camp, they faced challenging realities. The camp offered them a sense of community and empowered them to challenge the systems that enable the gender gap.

And that’s Tara’s goal in volunteering as a code instructor: teaching girls to have the confidence to maneuver through life in whatever they do, whether they pursue a career in STEM or not.

“We are missing so many voices, so many thoughts, so many profound views, when certain people are left out of the conversation in STEM. And I think a lot of it has to do with opportunity: I never thought that I could be a math teacher or a coding instructor, until Teach For America and Kode with Klossy came along and told me, ‘We think you have the potential, we think you have what it takes.'”

Tara Tran

Elias Arellano Villanueva (Rio Grande Valley ‘17)

When Elias joined the corps to teach eighth grade biology at IDEA Public Schools, he knew he wanted to expand his students’ access to STEM outside of the classroom. He also knew firsthand that fostering a deep love of science can take time.

Elias Arellano Villanueva

So, Elias started an after-school STEM club. He was able to recruit 22 students who actively participated in STEM activities, including engineering competitions, physics and biology experiments,and science fairs.

Elias is now an Exploring Computer Science (ECS) fellow. ECS is a Teach For America fellowship designed to develop teacher leadership within high schools and communities through computer science advocacy. As part of his fellowship, Elias began teaching Exploring Computer Science as an elective to 25 students. More than half of his class are girls, and the majority of his students are Latinx.

One of the most inspiring moments of Elias’ fellowship was during the problem-solving unit of his Exploring Computer Science Class, in which his students teamed up to identify problems in their community and propose solutions for those problems. The groups came up with topics that were plaguing their communities, such as drug abuse, pollution, bullying, and alcoholism.

“It was amazing to see the various data collection methods they came up with that would enable them to tackle these issues,” Elias says. “My students are still working on their projects, but I can't wait to see the methods they employ and the possible solutions they develop.”

“The current STEM field is permeated with inequality that is rooted in a lack of access and opportunities for minority students. By offering STEM opportunities at school, students begin to develop an interest in particular areas that could align to their future careers, and realize that pursuing a career in STEM is possible for everyone regardless of their background.”

Elias Arellano Villanueva

David Persley (Kansas City ‘14)

David has gravitated toward STEM his entire life, but it wasn’t until high school that he was able to access opportunities in STEM education and meet role models in the careers to which he aspired. So when David joined Teach For America as a math teacher in Kansas City, he wanted to make sure his students were getting exposure to all of the possibilities in the field of STEM.

David Persley

In his second year in the corps, David was able to do just that when his principal gave him permission to launch the school’s first coding course. “Student reception and engagement in the class was greater than I could have ever imagined,” David says. “Many students had never seen or been exposed to computer science, but found an instant passion for the subject and the way it provides them an opportunity to create, innovate, and problem solve.”

After discovering the extent to which computer science education was lacking in urban Kansas City--despite his students’ enthusiasm for the subject--David knew he had an opportunity to make a difference. So, along with his friend Joe Wilkinson, David co-founded the non-profit Code the Block. Its mission is to provide high-quality computer science education programs to underrepresented students in Kansas City and increase minority representation in the Kansas City tech landscape.

“We have students saying they never saw themselves doing things such as creating apps, websites, and games,” David says. “That empowerment reminds us why we believe programs like ours are so necessary and crucial to ensuring the success of future generations of students.”

“The call to fight for educational equity requires us to build pathways for students who have historically been counted out. I believe STEM is the field of the future, and if we are not intentional about preparing these students for futures in STEM, the effects will be felt by everyone.”

David Persley

Teach For America is helping schools to fill essential, hard-to-staff roles, including more than 2,000 STEM teachers in 2017. Learn more about our STEM Initiative and how you can support it.

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