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Fellowship of teachers boosts STEM instruction
Hai Tran came to the United States with his parents, political refugees from Vietnam, when he was 5. Speaking no English, he slowly adjusted to his new life but struggled in school. All that changed in fifth grade, when his teacher challenged him to write a short story.
“I was terrified,” he recalled in a recent interview. “But her belief in me forced me to raise my own standards. She inspired me because she believed in me.”
These days Tran, 24, is trying to do for youths what that teacher did for him: He stands at the other side of the classroom, teaching math at Everest High School in Redwood City. A June 2013 graduate of the Stanford Teacher Education Program, he is one of nine current and former STEP students who received a five-year fellowship from the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation earlier this year.
The Knowles fellowship is a highly competitive national program designed to enhance science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, education by empowering new teachers as leaders and creating a supportive network of colleagues.
Out of more than 200 applicants, 35 young educators — with one of every four from STEP — were named to this year’s cohort of Knowles fellows, which comprise a virtual and online community with access to mentors, seminars, and other opportunities for professional development. Fellows also qualify for professional development grants of up to $4,000 a year to cover the cost of workshops, material for classroom initiatives, and research, and they receive complementary membership to a professional organization of their choice.
The goal of both STEP and Knowles is to prepare master teachers in the STEM fields. (STEP is part of the Stanford Graduate School of Education.)
“We are looking to support teachers who show the qualities of leadership and a deep commitment to the profession,” said Jennifer Mossgrove, EdD, the foundation’s senior program officer for teacher development. “These are the people we see as advocates for their students and for their community, who are genuinely motivated, and who will reach out to broaden teaching beyond the four walls of the classroom.”
Thirty of the 240 Knowles fellowships awarded since 2002 have been awarded to STEP students and alumni — a high representation from one institution. “STEP and the foundation share similarities in their philosophy and focus, with a particular slant on encouraging deep understanding of complex subject matter and maintaining a community of like-minded professionals,” Mossgrove said.
Chris Lipski, 25, said that he sees the fellowship as a perfect complement to his current workload as a new STEP student. While working on his chemistry PhD at Stanford, Lipski realized last year that his favorite part of his doctoral education was teaching; he switched to STEP. He is placed for the entire school year with a teacher mentor at San Mateo High School for the clinical component of his STEP education.
“There’s so much more to being a teacher than I ever imagined,” Lipski said. “I’m just starting to realize the volume of what I have to think about. Now I have to evaluate what I can do, how I can do it, and how to prepare for it.”
The fellowship, he said, offers a network that will serve him well in the next few years and already is useful. He regularly asks questions and shares suggestions through an online discussion board with other Knowles fellows, a resource that he considers invaluable. It complements his participation in a shared Google document with 12 other science teachers in STEP to trade ideas on how to promote science in the classroom. One recent conversation addressed how to make the history of science relevant to their current classroom demographics.
“One teacher had her students draw a picture at the beginning of the year of what they thought a scientist looked like,” he said. “Almost every one of them drew a white man in a white lab coat. When she had them draw the same picture at the end of the year, the images were much more varied. I’m going to borrow that idea for my own classroom.”
Melissa Meloy, 24, is another 2013 Knowles fellow. A STEP graduate now teaching chemistry at Menlo Atherton High School, she began preparing for the profession as a biochemistry undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz; at that time she took part in a program designed to recruit and retain math and science teachers and that whet her appetite. Although she left the country after college — she found work in a butterfly conservatory in Costa Rica — she could not escape her passion to teach and applied to STEP.
“Chemistry is so abstract, but I enjoy the challenge of getting kids to like it as much as I do,” she said. “When they get it, it’s rewarding and exciting.”
Meloy credits STEP with giving her a broader perspective about teaching, an advantage that allows her to look at the curriculum and adapt her classroom approach accordingly.
“I've been working really hard on making sure I'm not seen as the sole authority on all things chemistry,” she said, noting that STEP’s emphasis on critical thinking is in keeping with the shift now under way to Common Core standards. “It’s still a struggle, since my natural instinct is to just say the right answer when a student asks me a question,” she added. “But I've had a lot of success with returning a question with another question, or bouncing someone's question back to the class.
“I also learned to distill a big unit into a ‘20-second story’ to make the content both memorable and engaging,” she said. "I practiced it, and I still do, but I learned about the technique and developed my skill in using it through STEP. The goal is to ensure that there is both a hook to get students interested and a key message that they will remember far beyond your class. It’s a tactic that helps to engage students who are not interested in math or science.”
Meloy said that her confidence in the classroom stems in large part from working directly with students alongside a teacher mentor from the very first weeks of STEP. She was able to join that master teacher in all her first-day preparations, ask detailed questions about the plans, and then see how it worked out. On her first day they departed from the traditional syllabus and had the students start off by mixing chemicals and learning how to interact in the lab. Now running her own classroom, Meloy restructured her students’ activities to accommodate its redesign so everyone got a chance to work with the Bunsen burners.
Meloy’s debut as a first-year teacher appears to be going well, and the support she is receiving from the Knowles Fellowship helps. “I keep reminding myself that there will be many more school years to tweak things as I go, but It’s frustrating that I don’t have time to work through all of the ideas I have,” she said. “That’s why the fellowship is so helpful —the foundation values a strong teacher community. I can share ideas and hear from others what has worked for them.”
Tran, the first member of his family to graduate from college, said that his first five months in his own classroom has only strengthened his commitment to teaching algebra to high school students. “Teaching was always in my plans,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, but it’s also difficult. The fellowship allows me to get better at what I do since we are all in the pursuit of getting better together.”
Tran sees the fellowship as a natural extension to the teaching “toolkit” that he acquired during his teacher preparation at Stanford. “STEP changed my mindset about how to view students and what strategies I need to use,” he said. “It taught me how to recognize and encourage different types of ‘smartness’ and showed me alternative ways to develop meaningful activities that teach mathematical thinking and analysis — not just the right answers. The fellowship continues that level of thinking.”
During his year in STEP, for instance, Tran said that he learned to break his class into small groups based on individual compatibility rather than achievement levels. He finds his students are enthusiastic about sharing the problem-solving process.
“By putting together groups based on who works well together, I can de-emphasize the answers and encourage them to think about finding patterns in math or to rephrase questions to help them move forward,” he said. “My job is to figure out what they need and then give them the opportunity to grow.”
Rachel Lotan, a professor of education and director of STEP, said that while Tran, Meloy and Lipski are each unique, they were all accepted into the Stanford program because of their talent and commitment. “We attract a distinctive cohort of teacher candidates who are among the most high achieving of college graduates,” she said.
“Our students are the best part of STEP, and each year’s class is diverse in every sense of the word,” Lotan added. “The number of Knowles fellows selected from STEP confirms their excellence and our program’s exceptional standards.”
What follows is a complete list of the 2013 Knowles Fellows from STEP.
Adrian Cheng (MA ’13) earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and economics from the University of California, Berkeley, and worked at a company that makes parts for NASA mission before joining STEP. He is now teaching at Cupertino High School.
Cady Ching (BA ’12, MA ’13) holds a bachelor’s degree in human biology and a master’s degree in education, both from Stanford. She works closely with Native American youth and developed a program to help them network at Stanford. She teaches at Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City.
Kimberly Hartung (MA ’13) holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Pomona College. Selected to participate in the San Francisco Teacher Residency program, she now teaches at Lincoln High School in San Francisco.
Chris Lipski (MS ’13, MA ’14) holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Oberlin College and a master’s degree in chemistry from Stanford. A former PhD candidate, he switched to STEP last June and hopes to remain in the Bay Area for his teaching career.
Melissa Meloy (MA ’13) holds a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. After graduating, she worked on a butterfly conservatory in Costa Rica and now teaches chemistry at Menlo-Atherton High School.
Nathan Pinsky (MA ’14) earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Harvey Mudd College. As a participant in the San Francisco Teacher Residency Program, he plans to teach in San Francisco when he completes STEP.
Hai Tran (MA ’13) immigrated to the United States from Vietnam when he was 5. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley. He teaches mathematics at Everest Public High School in Redwood City.
Kayla Urquidi (MA ’13) received her bachelor’s degree in human biology from Brown University. A participant in the San Francisco Teacher Residency Program, she teaches math and science at Creative Arts Charter School in San Francisco.
Lily Xu (BA ’12, MA ’13), a first-generation immigrant from China, earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Stanford. She teaches mathematics at Los Altos High School.
Ruth Schecter is a freelance writer who contributes frequently to Stanford University websites and publications. All photographs are by Ian Terpin.