A Seriously Amazing STEM Teacher
Editor’s Note: The following is a transcript of an interview conducted with Kim Van Eaton. Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
Here at the Smithsonian Science Education Center, we’re passionate about science communication and creating an infectious love of science. As part of this mission, our director, Dr. Carol O’Donnell, met with science teachers in Washington State this June to talk about the importance of science education. While there she meet 6th grade teacher Kim Van Eaton from Marie Curie STEM Elementary School. Kim had nothing but kind words to say about STCTM and how the kit had changed her teaching of science! It’s always heartwarming to hear that your work has impacted someone’s life in a positive way. We wanted to know a little more about how Kim has been affected by STC and SSEC, so we got in touch to hear more of her thoughts.
Q: Which areas of STEM interested you most when you were first learning to teach science?
A: When I was first learning to teach science, I was very focused on science content in isolation, with an emphasis on literacy skills. Once I began receiving training in the area of STEM, I worked with other content teachers to try to incorporate math. At about the same time, I looked at incorporating technology in the form of computerized simulations using things like the Starry Night software. As my STEM experience and understanding deepened, I was able to see opportunities for adding engineering and design practices.
Q: Was there a science teacher when you were young who really inspired and influenced you?
A: Strangely enough, I don't remember much about my own science education. I remember being very overwhelmed by facts and formulas in high school biology and chemistry, although I do remember the real-life applications the most, for example, how we determine calories in food because we actually burned a peanut and calculated that!
Q: What do you hope that your students can take away from learning about STEM?
A: I hope that my students take away those same type of real-world connections and use the skills that we employed to solve problems and design solutions in their careers and everyday life. I also want them to keep trying to observe, understand, and explain the science in the world around them because we talk about that so much. Those are truly lifelong skills!
Q: Which aspects of STEM have you found the most resistance to?
A: I would have to say engineering because that is not an easy fit with the way we have traditionally taught science and it isn't always obvious how to connect those types of activities with content standards. I have had to really adjust my thinking on this and dig deeper into the NGSS to make sure we are doing enough in that area.
Dr. Carol O’Donnell and Kim Van Eaton hold the SEM board! Image: Dr. Carol O’Donnell/Smithsonian Science Education Center
Q: Where did you first hear about the SSEC?
A: I have a colleague that had mentioned collaborating with and working on units for the SSEC, but I didn't make the connection until I was formally introduced to the program just last week.
Q: How do you think your teaching methods have changed based on STC?
A: I have definitely let go of showing and telling students how things work and let them discover for themselves. Experiencing the phenomena in a model or demonstration is so important, especially in the area of Earth in Space because those concepts are so abstract and hard to understand otherwise.
Q: Of the STC lessons, are there a couple that you are particularly fond of? Why?
A: I love, love, love the lessons that utilize the SEM boards because I have not been able to find another way to recreate the accuracy and clarity of that model. I had to teach without the STC kit for Earth in Space this year, and that was the item I missed the most! We could go out and buy other supplies, but not that. I talked about it so much and made reference to it every time we talked about moon phases, seasons, eclipses.... Part of my love for this item is that it helped me so much in cementing my own understanding of these concepts!
I love seeing kids ideas evolve from mainly misconceptions to more accurate explanations of these phenomena as the lessons progress.
I also love EIS Lesson 18 in the older version because it covers the standard of geologic time so well, and the kids are really interested in that topic. The hands-on activities are very engaging and relevant, and kids remember them because they are so messy and fun!
Q: What advice would you have for new teachers coming into STEM schools or education?
A: Invest in time to look at the standards, get to know them well, and team vertically to be aware of what kids will come to you knowing and what they should know when they leave your class. Pay attention to what is going on in the world outside of education so you know what it is that your students will need as they leave the school system. Create a network of resources from the STEM community so you can provide your students with authentic experiences they may not otherwise have access to and role models in STEM careers.
It is stories like Kim’s that remind all of us in science education of the importance of the work we do! It might not always be an easy cause but it’s certainly worth fighting for, and we couldn’t ask for a better group to fight with!