Teacher to STEM
by August Deshais | 04.21.16
August Deshais is a kindergarten teacher at Ridgewood Elementary in Eureka, CA.
I have three children ranging in age from 3 to 21, and my two older kids—my daughters—any time they would have a man working in their preschool, or a male instructional aide in kindergarten, I realized what an impact those figures had. Not just from the stereotypical concept of a male role model, but the idea of a nurturing male role model kind of spoke to me as something I could contribute.
My degree is in botany. I’m a biology major—however, after doing that for several years, I found myself continually pulled back to education. I decided to return [to school] to get a teaching credential. From the beginning, my goal was to be a kindergarten teacher. It’s been an amazing, wonderfully rewarding journey. It’s crazy to think that had you asked me when I was young, teaching would have been the last thing I would have listed that I’d do. Now it’s one of the most important things I do in my life.
Five years ago, the concept of digital natives really began to speak to me when I realized that kids that I have in my classroom right now were born after the first iPad came out. For them, the idea that we touch and interact with screens is inherent; they don’t question it. While I can’t expose my kids to what the future looks like because we don’t know, I want to make sure that I’m being as innovative as possible in a developmentally appropriate way in my classroom so that they’re never afraid to try new things, to take tools and use them in different ways than originally intended. I try to be a little techy with my students while finding ways to tie back into the skills they need right here and right now.
[It’s a] very STEM-oriented classroom, [but] it looks a lot like other kindergarten classrooms. We focus on skills foundational for kids to be successful—reading, writing, mathematics. Science, technology, all of those things that we are now just referring to as STEM have always been very inspiring to me as a learner. I was into the maker movement before it had a name because [as] a kid, [I was] all about taking things apart and figuring how they worked.
Kids are born scientists—they come with an insatiable curiosity to figure out why the world is the way it is. Kids are always developing hypotheses, testing them, to figure out how the world works, whether from a social standpoint or a physical science perspective. [Emphasizing STEM] is my way to make sure I’m speaking to children’s’ inherent curiosity, but also satisfying my own. I teach with much more passion when it’s something I myself am passionate about.
I am really lucky that at my school, there’s a 5-acre redwood forest on the property. I have this amazing resource on my campus that wasn’t being used by the 13 classrooms. Having a botany degree, it just made such perfect sense to take my students out there. Every Friday, I take students out for a 30-minute hike, rain or shine (excluding horrendous winds that might be dangerous)—we’re out there documenting, observing change, [learning the] names of native plants, listening for birds—and we draw on that back in the classroom to make connections to reading, writing, math, local history.
Two years ago this spring, I was lucky to get a 3D printer for my classroom. MakerBot had a program with Donorschoose.org. There was almost no cost for a printer and three spools of filament. [I had to write] an essay about why I wanted it—I said, I’m a kindergarten teacher, I don’t know how I will use it, but I’ll try to find some way to do it. I have parents, colleagues that are amazed when they see it. They want to come in on open house night, after school, and watch it work.
My students have used it for the past two years [and] now it’s become commonplace. It’s just one more tool in our classroom we can use to solve problems. [For] one of our first projects, our librarian lost her doorstop—I knew where [the project] was going but scaffolded it so students became problem solvers. It led us to deciding we should make one [for the librarian]—while I ran the design program on my monitor, students gave input on how it should be shaped, what it should say. We designed, printed and presented [a doorstop] to the librarian in one day.
Now they start making suggestions [for what they’d like to print]—math manipulatives, replacement puzzle pieces. A first-grade student [from my class] last year returned recently and he had drawn out a desktop art drying rack he wanted to have. I printed it out and gave it to him—[he had] pride and happiness in knowing he conceived of it. A lot of the things [we make] I could buy [online], but my kids interact differently, they can tell [if] they’re made on the 3D printer, [it has a] different meaning to them knowing it’s something we produced in our classroom. I see it as being one of the more impactful things we do in the classroom.
August’s tips for other teachers looking to integrate more STEM into their classrooms:
- Just be brave. Failure is such a humbling but important learning experience, even as a teacher, that I think if somebody thinks that they want to try something in their classroom, to just go for it. You can always go back and modify your first attempt and see if you can improve upon it. I’ve been fortunate in seeking funding for some projects, but cobbling some things together is a learning experience for teachers and students as well.
- I’d imagine there are [3D printing] enthusiasts in every community who’d want to have the opportunity to connect with children and make their designs come to life. Draw upon the community as much as possible. People are very willing to help. I don’t see many people saying no to taking a couple of hours and sharing with kids.