Lab Coat Confidential: A Report from the Teachers Institute

Last August, FirstHand piloted the Teachers Institute, an intensive professional development program for 15 middle school teachers from six schools around the Philadelphia School District. The teachers spent three days learning about 21st century skills, exploring the Science Center ecosystem, and doing hands on STEAM activities in the FirstHand Lab. As final products, each group developed new lesson plans to bring back to their classrooms. The Institute was funded with grant support from the William Penn Foundation.

Last month, the teachers returned for a follow-up session to share results and work on planning for another semester of engaging students in STEAM. We asked Janene and Lynn, two teachers from Southwark Elementary in South Philadelphia, to talk with us about their experience at the Teachers Institute and how they have incorporated what they learned into their classrooms.

Janene (left) and Lynn testing a sample of bioplastic they made.

What subject do you teach?
Janene: I teach K-8 STEM and CTE (Career and Technical Education) for 7th and 8th grade.
Lynn: I’m a 7th and 8th grade ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher and I work with Janene in her STEM class.

What is your favorite part of your job?
Janene: My favorite part… a lot! One is to see kids innovate and problem-solve and create new inventions that have never been made before.
Lynn: For me, just seeing the students when they learn something that they haven’t seen before and they go “Aha!” That moment when they connect and get it.

Who were your role models growing up?
Lynn: I think my father, because he always focused on tolerance and diversity. I grew up in the 70s in a segregated neighborhood in New Jersey. My parents really tried to treat everyone the same, and I think that helps me in teaching ESOL to different cultures. And recently Erin Gruwell, the innovative teacher in California who really got down and got to know the students and was able to connect with them and then teach.
Janene: My mom was a big role model for me. She always wanted to be a teacher but then she never went to college. So she actually went back to school when she was a mom. She still never became a teacher, but she loves kids and taught me the same thing… to be nice to people and treat everyone the same way.

What was your favorite activity from the FirstHand Teacher’s Institute?
Janene: I really enjoyed the time here, especially the hands-on activities. I really liked doing the role playing with that game…
Lynn: The entrepreneurial Venture game!
Janene: Yeah, the Venture game. That was cool. Overall it was great, it was really amazing.

What is the most important thing you took away from the Institute?
Janene: That’s actually really easy for me because I studied education, not science or business. So to see a STEM business in action in the ecosystem that’s at the Science Center… that helps me teach kids who might not realize that that’s a career option for them.
Lynn: And I would say I am usually all about history, so coming to a STEM professional development was kind of taking a leap. But I’ve had the best time here! To walk around this building and see people doing the work that they’re doing and being able to say to the kids, “You know, this might be something that you could get in to.” Opening doors that they never would have thought were available to them.
Janene: And to see how it works in a professional setting, to see that firsthand is so valuable. I think that’s the most beneficial thing, and then another is the opportunity to collaborate with my colleague. We teach the same kids, and she has a lot to teach me.

Describe how you’ve taken these ideas into your classroom.
Janene: Coming in, I already knew that I wanted kids to pick a science “major” to focus on and research. But now we’ve put an entrepreneurial context around it, and that has been really valuable. And we brought the students to see the Science Center, so they can understand that this is in their city.
Lynn: Yeah they were really excited about that. We took the subway so they really couldn’t see where we were going, and when we got here some of them were like, “Oh, this is Market Street?” It was comforting for them to know that there is more to life than just our part of South Philly.
Janene: Yeah, for them to understand that this is their city, that these things are happening in their city and there are these startup companies that they could be a part of – I think that is super valuable.