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August 19, 2020

New Science Laureate: How I Found My Passion for Science Education

Note from Sarah Brown Wessling: Join me in extending a welcoming hand to a very special addition to the Teaching Channel family: Tom Jenkins, our newest Teacher Laureate. Tom is every bit as passionate, curious, and accomplished as any teacher I’ve met, and I simply can’t wait for you to get to know him. As a veteran science teacher, he brings with him a depth of experience that we’re all going to benefit from. Join me in welcoming him by reading his introductory blog post and giving him some of your Tch love in the comment section below.

Why do we become educators? Some people become educators because they were inspired by someone in a particular field or subject area. I believe I’m somewhat unique. Even though I loved interacting with the world around me as a child, science was one of my least favorite classes to attend while in school.

The science classes that I remember consisted of rote memorization of the periodic table of elements, 25 question chapter reviews, and “cookie cutter” labs. My favorite classes were ones that allowed for interaction, creativity and debate, like history and classical literature. Sitting in a chair writing proofs and theorems while in geometry class, as well as passively listening to lectures while in science class, made me apathetic towards STEM related courses while in high school. It wasn’t a big surprise when I became a political science major upon entering college.

It was at that time that I began coaching middle school football and boy’s basketball, and I realized that my true passion was working with young people. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I did what many collegiate sophomores do and promptly switched majors — fortunately, I had a mentor who encouraged me to choose science because “it would be much easier to get a job.” I took his advice and stumbled upon a few educators at Wright State University who believed in inquiry based science instruction. Active engagement, as well as the practical application of knowledge, blew my mind and caused me to regain that natural curiosity. I was an immediate convert and decided that I wanted to be part of the paradigm shift that was occurring in science education.

Flash forward eight years to 2006. I am a National Board Certified Teacher, my classroom is interactive, students are conducting thoughtful scientific investigations and, in my mind, I am successfully completing my mission. Enter one of my all-time favorite students. She had just completed her first semester at The Ohio State University and we caught up over lunch. I asked how things were going and she replied that things were great, and then she hesitated. She said that she was really disappointed that we didn’t work through any engineering projects while she was in my class, and that if we had, then she would have likely taken different courses in high school as to be better prepared for engineering courses at the collegiate level. Imagine one of your favorite students pointing out that you need to improve your instruction. It was a wake-up call. It was at that point that I realized that I needed to look for professional development that would allow me to improve my practices to prepare my students for 21st century challenges.

Eighth Grade Greenon Students Celebrate The Successful Launch of Their Experiments into Near Space (62,720ft) 

Eighth Grade Greenon Students Celebrate The Successful Launch of Their Experiments into Near Space (62,720ft)

It was around this time that I took advantage of an opportunity to be part of the inaugural cohort of STEM Fellows at the Dayton Regional STEM Center. This institution — funded by entities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Governor’s Association, and the Air Force Research Laboratories — was one of a handful of centers across the United States that was created to partner classroom educators with professionals in both higher education and industry. The primary goal of this experiment was to help train educators in the engineering design process, so that they in turn could share this way of thinking with their students. Then, these heterogeneous teams went a step further and created project-based STEM units that allowed students to utilize all aspects of this standards-based content.

Being a part of this organization was the most impactful professional development that I had ever experienced. It transformed my classroom into a learning environment where students were assigned career roles, worked collaboratively to create solutions to real world problems, and later reflected not only upon the successes, but also the failures of their design. These skills function to not only demonstrate to students the application of classroom science content, but will also help them in many aspects of their lives. No longer do any of the students ask the question, “Why are we learning this?”

Through this new role with Teaching Channel, it’s my goal to not only share my experiences and ideas from working with science professionals and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), but to learn from you as well. Thank you for taking the time to read my very first Teaching Channel blog; I look forward to learning with you.

Here is a link to wonderful, free STEM Curriculum available through the Dayton Regional STEM Center:


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