Vanessa began her journey towards becoming a teacher at Texas A&M University, where she majored in Meteorology. As a tutor and volunteer throughout college, she uncovered her passion for teaching. After graduating, Vanessa entered an alternate certification program to teach secondary school and a few months later found herself teaching high school. According to Vanessa, she’s “now been teaching for 15 years and can’t see [her]self doing anything else.” One of the highlights of teaching for her is the opportunity to share her love of science and engineering with her students each year. This past year, students who graduated from Tomball are entering engineering programs all over the country.
The best part about being a STEM teacher for Vanessa is that every day, she can expose students to content with relevant real-world applications. Every project and lesson teaches a technical skill, which students are then able to apply in their own way to solve a problem. STEM is extremely important outside the classroom, as the world has many evolving and unfamiliar issues that will only grow without proper care. Vanessa believes that technical skill will be a huge factor in understanding and solving these problems. STEM courses prepare students for strong teamwork and practice in designing solutions. These critical skills will assist in solving future issues that do not exist today. As a subject that integrates learning from each area of a student’s academic experience, STEM offers the ability to relate classroom subjects to relevant and real-world experiences. In Vanessa’s classroom, her students have to “read, write, research, present, calculate and at times, conduct sound experiments to solve problems.” Due to the structure of her curriculum, students are able to gain both technical skills and communication skills that will jump start their success in college and beyond.
One current issue in the STEM field is that there are not enough people to fill all the jobs. Vanessa combats this by creating engaging lessons and demonstrating connections to various careers. This allows students to envision themselves in roles that they weren’t aware of or may not have imagined otherwise. Students begin to understand how they can apply their passions in a STEM-focused career. Through opportunities such as video conferences with professionals, guest speakers and community connections, students are able to access the resources required to find their unique path. On top of this, Tomball itself offers a variety of extracurriculars to expand students’ interest in STEM. These include robotics, SWENext, UIL and other engineering clubs. Providing these spaces for students to feel at home boosts confidence and gives field exposure so they can start to develop and focus on what they find interesting.
Vanessa says that starting a SWENext club at their high school “gave [their] students a way to dig deeper in the field of engineering and find resources that they didn’t know existed.” SWE can be very meaningful for students as it provides connections through college and beyond. One thing that Vanessa is looking forward to in her SWENext club is exploring all the resources that SWE has to offer, and to rely on SWE to help find speakers to “bring their passion into [her] classroom.”
Being a STEM teacher can be truly humbling, as well as an incredible experience. Vanessa has learned throughout her career that there is not always a right answer, and that the teacher does not necessarily hold all the correct answers (and in fact, often does not)! She is impressed and humbled by the “sheer talent [her] students bring in and their passion for learning.” One piece of advice that Vanessa has is to not be afraid to take educational risks. Just as failure plays an important role for engineers, Vanessa says that in education, “sometimes the biggest flops have the most learning embedded in them.” Another piece of advice Vanessa shares is to constantly ask for student feedback and input to help potentially influence the direction of a project. This also helps adjust lessons year-to-year and class-to-class, as different groups of students will have varied learning styles and might react differently to the same lesson. Coming from an atypical background before becoming a teacher taught Vanessa how to persevere until she finds a solution and to completely rework a solution if needed. This, along with gaining teamwork and collaboration skills, are vital for STEM fields, and Vanessa believes that learning these skills prior to becoming a teacher has shaped who she is as a teacher.
As reflected in the professional world, Vanessa’s classroom enrollment is disproportionately male. Over the coming years, she intends to focus on narrowing this gender gap and providing her students with the best STEM education possible prior to graduation. She says, “we lose a fraction of our female student population around adolescence in STEM electives.” Vanessa believes that this can happen with awareness and a culture shift in the entire K-12 vertical system. For the 2018-2019 school year, Vanessa won teacher of the year, and while this is certainly, “a true testament to the impact STEM is having on [the] students and community,” it is also certainly a testament to her dedication to her students and providing them with a great engineering experience. With dedicated teachers like Vanessa, equalizing the number of women in STEM feels closer than ever. Keep up the awesome work Vanessa!