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LEAD Houston: STEM Teaching and Social Justice


When Susan Holzknecht first trained fellow eighth-grade teachers in an engineering design project, they were skeptical. Some thought the work was too difficult for students who weren’t in honors classes.

Holzknecht disagreed. “We need to quit limiting our students,” says the science teacher at WoodCreek Junior High in Katy, Texas.

After telling teachers she’ll “own it” if the project failed, students at all levels took on the problem of creating a model car to help the school librarian carry books and the coach carry football pads. In the end, students in standard classes outperformed those in advanced courses. If it wasn’t for Holzknecht, some students would have been left out.

The WoodCreek teacher developed the project idea while participating in a 14-month master’s program at the University of Houston. She will graduate with the first class of the Enhancing STEM Teacher Leadership Through Equity and Advocacy Development, or LEAD Houston, program at the end of the summer. All participants are full-time middle and high school teachers in the Houston metro area.

After graduation, teachers receive $10,000 annual stipends for the next four years to provide professional development sessions at their schools, districts and across the nation. The second cohort of 15 LEAD Houston teachers, which first met at an orientation this month, will begin the program in June. Combining both in-classroom instruction and leading professional development for other teachers, the 30 graduates are expected to reach 300,000 students per year.

Culture and Learning
One key component of the program is culturally responsive teaching, or making content more relatable to students from diverse cultural and educational experiences. This method is shown to increase successful outcomes for students underrepresented in STEM fields. That’s why Holzknecht pushed for students from all backgrounds to take on a challenging engineering project at her school.

“If students don’t see how math fits into their culture, they don’t see themselves as a math person,” says Paige Evans, clinical professor of teachHouston, which facilitates the LEAD Houston program.

Another member of the first class, Armando Morales, applies real-world examples for his physics students at Pasadena High School near Houston. Many of his students have family members who work in a nearby refinery, so he applied this knowledge to a thermodynamics lesson. “Start with what they know and expand from there,” he says.

Morales grew up in the same neighborhood and graduated from the school where he now teaches, giving him a better understanding of the students’ lives in and out of school. He takes community walks with students and parents to visit the stores, parks and other pl4B7A0024.jpgaces they regularly visit – an idea he wants other teachers to incorporate.

“A lot of our teachers don’t live in the neighborhoods they teach in, so the community walk can be very eye-opening,” he says.

While Holzknecht once perceived her school in Katy as mostly homogenous, the culturally responsive training made her think about students whose appearance doesn’t reveal their full heritage and background. “There’s more than just the surface of what you see with students,” she says.

One of the first classes the 15 LEAD teachers take is engineering design with Mariam Manuel. The class challenges teachers to redesign a project that’s been used at their school to incorporate engineering design and culturally responsive pedagogy. Manuel says fellow teachers using the revised design are “pleasantly surprised” by the significant rise in student engagement and dialogue, as well as academic performance.

Leander Taylor, a physics teacher at Clear Brook High School and a member of the second LEAD Houston class, hopes the program helps him find ways to encourage diverse students to find a passion for STEM fields at a younger age. From his experience, Taylor typically finds students are set on whether they want to pursue a STEM career by 10th grade.

Leaders in the field
Along with in-classroom instruction, LEAD Houston provides teachers with training in how to coach and lead professional development for other teachers at their schools, districts and across the nation. This focus allows the program to maximize its impact beyond the initial 30 teachers.

Holzknecht was terrified before her first presentation at a conference, but walked away with a positive experience, particularly when working with pre-service teachers.

“With pre-service teachers, I feel like sometimes they aren’t equipped well enough when they walk into the classroom,” Holzknecht says. “You hear about the theory but don’t see it in practice. It’s very rewarding to share what I do in my classroom.”  

Looking ahead, she wants to create a professional development day for the science departments across her school district.

Working at an early college high school, Morales spends most of his time with 11th- and 12th-graders at a local community college. He is using his voice to speak for what has and hasn’t worked for them, knowing there’s a significant difference between high school teachers and college professors. With training from LEAD Houston, Morales says it “gave me the confidence to speak up and make my points clear.”

Laying the Foundation
Another part of the master’s program is taking NMSI’s Laying the Foundation training, which gives teachers hands-on learning in STEM subjects from a students’ perspective.

“The fellows have gained a lot from LTF, and the curriculum made available to them is outstanding,” Evans says.

In the 2018 summer training, Holzknecht and her colleagues used metal coils in an electromagnetic wavelength demonstration. She won the coils as a door prize and used them to show her students how wavelengths operate. “It’s one thing to hear about it or see in a video, but it’s another to experience it firsthand,” Holzknecht says.

Morales, who previously took a physics LTF training at Pasadena High, says taking the math LTF with the LEAD program helped him better understand what knowledge in algebra students know when they start physics. Morales also found it helpful to learnwhat dynamic graphing calculators can do, which is useful for schools that don’t have funds to purchase expensive physics equipment.

This summer, the first LEAD Houston class will collaborate with and then mentor the second class.

“I’m excited to be able to expand my knowledge and apply it in a way I haven’t been able to before – not only for my students but across my campus and district, making a better future for more students,” says Lorenza Ramirez, a MacArthur Senior High School chemistry teacher and member of LEAD Houston’s second class.