Ungrading? Letting kids teach IT? GeekWire Award-winning STEM teachers share innovative strategies

Barbie Espinol
The GeekWire Awards’ STEM Educator of the Year honorees, from left to right: Devina Khan, instructional designer at the West Valley Innovation Center; Stephanie Winslow, teacher at South Kitsap High School; and Johanna Brown, teacher at Pullman High School. (Photos courtesy of Khan, Winslow and Brown)

Innovation is alive and well in STEM classrooms across Washington state, inspiring students to seek opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.

At the GeekWire Awards on May 12, we’re celebrating the accomplishments of three STEM Educator of the Year honorees who are excelling in their jobs by embracing creative, rule-breaking teaching strategies in their classrooms. These educators are eschewing traditional grading structures, putting students in charge of teaching lessons and empowering them with real-life, project-based learning.

We recently sat down to chat with our honorees along with DreamBox Learning CEO and President Jessie Woolley-Wilson to learn more about their efforts to breakdown traditional barriers. DreamBox is the sponsor of this award, now in its second year.

The STEM Educator of the Year honorees are:

Johanna Brown, a teacher at Pullman High School who brought Advanced Placement chemistry and computer science to her Eastern Washington high school, led their Science Bowl team to championships and embraces a “gradeless” classroom.

Devina Khan, a computer science and information technology instructional designer at the West Valley Innovation Center who partnered with an international program to connect female students with STEM professionals, coached students to earn tech certifications and helped kids share their tech expertise with the broader community in ag-focused Yakima County.

Stephanie Winslow, a teacher at South Kitsap High School who was one of the first STEM-certified career and technical educators in Washington and teaches AP environmental science, astronomy and earth science classes. She is also an advisor for STEM Club.

The GeekWire Awards recognize the top innovators and companies in Pacific Northwest technology. Our STEM educator honorees and other award finalists were selected based on community nominations, along with input from GeekWire Awards judges.

Continue reading for highlights, edited for clarity and length.

Listen to the full discussion on the GeekWire Podcast below, or subscribe to GeekWire in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen.

DreamBox Learning CEO Jessie-Woolley Wilson. (DreamBox Photo)

Woolley-Wilson: As you think about your craft and about what you do every day, how do you think about bringing STEM to more audiences, especially more diverse audiences?

Khan: At my school, we have a program called IGNITE, and you’ve probably heard about it. IGNITE stands for Inspiring Girls Now in Technology Evolution and they are a nonprofit out of Seattle and we are a chapter.

One of my visions has been to increase the number of female students in STEM courses in our district. We’ve actually inspired so many girls. A few years ago, I had one female student in a computer science class, one out of 20. And now I have an equal number.

The other thing is spreading the knowledge of STEM across our community. One of the things that we’ve done at my school is offer adult technology education classes to our community, and our students teach these classes. I’m just standing there, and the students have gone through the lesson planning process and everything.

And this is causing a ripple effect. There’s other students getting excited about this. The understanding of STEM is getting infiltrated into our community. So we also are planning a STEM camp for younger kids, again, being led by our students at the innovation center.

Winslow: One thing that we have at our school that’s amazing is an award-winning TV program. It’s called W-TV, Wolf TV, and students run the show. We’ve been able to take our web program, and we have these students that put on some of the funniest PSAs [public service announcements]. And they’re really good about capturing the essence of a classroom and making sure that you’re showing that all different types of students are taking our courses, that there are all different types of jobs and careers in the STEM field, something for everybody.

Johanna Brown, teacher at Pullman High School. (Pullman High Photo)

Brown: I go visit classes younger than mine. I’ve gone down to the middle school, just so they can see pictures of our class, so that they can see me and I can interact with them, and reaching out the students like, “Hey, are you signing up for computer science next year? Am I gonna see you in chemistry?” Just bringing that invitation.

Then I do I do some new things with conference-type grading and “ungrading.” Students and I have conversations about their growth and where we think they’ve gone. So instead of buying into this fake objectivity of what an “A” or a “B” is, we’re having these conversations.

And one of the coolest things this year is every girl in my computer science class told me that it was so much easier than they thought it was going to be. Like, exactly, because you have this myth, right? You have this myth in your brain of this being hard and that you don’t belong here. And it’s actually not that not that tough. You’re enjoying it.

Woolley-Wilson: How did you come up with this ungrading approach? I want to learn more about that.

Brown: It was students working for points. Not that we all are going to be intrinsically motivated all the time, but how do students see their journey? How can they track their growth? So I started doing research when we were home that summer [in 2020]. And I said, “That’s it. I’m done grading.”

And when we came back, we were all virtual for a long time. So I came up with a system where I asked my principal, and then I asked my students and their families, “If you try and you do these four or five things, ask questions, get help when you need it, you’re going to earn an ‘A’ this year, because you’re home.” And my administration went with it. And my students went with it.

And that was last year. I now have students pick their own grade. Doing that made me realize some of my own biases. I realized, oh, I have some feelings about whether or not this person deserves an “A,” do I actually know students that well? Not necessarily. And I have students who maybe don’t feel comfortable sharing things with me. Teachers talk about giving grace when a student asks for something. But what about all the students who aren’t asking you that? You don’t know.

So it’s really forced me to develop stronger relationships with students and check myself and come to a place where a student can grow from where they need to.

Woolley-Wilson: There’s so much innovation that’s happening every day in classrooms across America that people have no idea about. And this is one of these innovations. I’m curious if ungrading is going to stick post pandemic?

Brown: I am hopeful. I just I presented on it at the National Science Teaching conference a couple of weeks ago, and people were sitting on the floor. What happened to us in the last two years, and what we’re seeing with students, we’re just seeing that [grading] is a myth. Grades were made up in the 1800s. They’re unnecessary. They’re a way to oppress people that we don’t need.

Most people’s greatest learning experiences are learning an instrument or learning a sport or something where they get continual feedback, not when they received a score.

GeekWire reporter Lisa Stiffler: I love that ungrading knocks down another barrier for kids who maybe would be curious about STEM and computer science classes, but maybe fear that it’s going to goof up their GPA. So maybe the more hesitant ones are going to take that chance. I’d love to turn to Stephanie and Davina get thoughts on other ways you’re not following the normal track.

Devina Khan, instructional designer at the West Valley Innovation Center. (West Valley Innovation Center Photo)

Khan: Our school is a project-based learning environment, so every lesson includes a real-life project component, and I try to get a guest lecture tied into that from the community.

For example, we did a unit on hardware management where students unassembled, and assembled computers that were donated to us by our IT department surplus. So their trash became our treasure. And then they had to mock purchase items to build a computer based on client specifications. They got a budget and had to go shopping and buy the pieces to put the computer together.

We try to give them real-life projects in the classroom, and their learning is all very relevant.

So while they’re meeting all the standards required to graduate, they’re also building a very good portfolio, they’re learning industry level certifications, they’re also having the chance to shadow or have registered apprenticeships with different companies.

Winslow: After COVID, a lot of students are just kind of questioning everything. They’re going, all of a sudden we’re back at school after the pandemic, and I’m in a math class, and I’m thinking, “What is my future going to be like?” And it’s kind of this sense of instability and just talking to the students about all of the skills that they have learned.

That is one of the pieces when you think about preparing for STEM, looking at the idea of adaptability and flexibility. And then looking at that focus on how am I understanding this information?

Woolley-Wilson: So each of you talked about the kind of crazy past two years and the impact on the children you serve. It was like a typhoon. We were kind of flying the plane as we were we were building it because no one was prepared for the impact of COVID. I have a question about teachers. What do you do to restore yourselves? What do you do to navigate through the typhoon?

Winslow: [COVID hit] right before the Advanced Placement tests. So that was another kind of barrier, another unknown for students. I really started to do exactly what I tell students to do, like chunking information, chunking time, trying to break it down, and to make it more manageable. Because it was overwhelming, trying to learn so many new things.

Stephanie Winslow, teacher at South Kitsap High School. (South Kitsap High Photo)

There were a lot of tough times, but I sure took a lot away from that experience that I’m using now. It was just breaking it up into little pieces initially, and then just trying to get through short periods of time. It was like, OK, we’ll be back in two weeks, oh, we’ll be back maybe in a month. But we aren’t gonna be back. It was that constant change. So finding a routine, finding a schedule, I think is the same thing that the students do.

Brown: In the classroom, reminding myself and reminding students that nothing is really urgent, that you can always learn something later, you can always turn something in later.

You are welcome to email me at night, but there is nothing in this class that is so urgent that I need to respond to you, that we can’t figure it out. You matter, but whatever is going on about this class doesn’t matter. And if it’s that urgent, you either need the emergency room, or some adult that is there with you.

Khan: I tried to model whatever I’m teaching. So at the start of the school year, I spent the first week showing students what I do and how I do it. So if I’m using a digital tool to plan or to set up my appointments, I will show them this is what I use and this is how I do it. And this is how I use my planner. This is how I write things out.

And just like Johanna [Brown] said, it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to say it’s not done yet. We can come back to it. So if you are not stressed, you are the one who carries the vibe in your classroom. If you can have that calm vibe, or at least show how to plan, it helps all of us be less stressed and less anxious.

Stiffler: I imagine some teachers, in particular going into hardcore computer science or just very technical science, have some intimidation. And I wonder what you do to support your peers and fellow teachers?

Winslow: I’m the district curriculum coordinator and so I’m fortunate in that I’m kind of a conduit in a way. One of the pieces that is really important for teachers is the opportunity for professional development. Teachers love learning. If you give them an opportunity to go do it, that is going to self-perpetuate their desire to learn and improve.

Besides professional development, we are part of a number of grants at our school where you can build your program to meet the needs of your teachers.

Khan: Our district offers professional development classes throughout the year, and summer institutes where staff can sign up for various classes. Last year, I co-taught a class to prepare any educator who wanted to become Google-educator certified. We had over 20 teachers and administrators who got their Google certification and it excited them to go to the next step. So we have programs like this throughout the year.

And I feel like the pandemic, one of the greatest benefits of it was the undeniable need to embrace technology. We use technology in ways we’ve never used before. And that kind of eased a lot of teachers into understanding that technology is not a monster.

Brown: I learned how to code to teach my class, and that was really hard and really intimidating. And that first year, I just asked students to come with me on this journey. As we coded in Java somewhat together, I was only about three minutes ahead of them.

And was it perfect? No. But was it really good? And did students learn how to code? Yeah. And so when I’m working with teachers, it’s really about, how are you constructing the student experience to discover things to be a critical thinker? And as a teacher, I don’t think adults should know everything; I don’t think they should seem that they know everything.

I tell students, if an adult says that they know exactly what’s going on, you should not believe them, because we actually don’t. And so I’m really trying to break down that barrier of a teacher needing to know everything and have it perfectly together. Because we don’t and that’s what makes science and tech great, is there are things none of us know, that we all need to figure out.

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