The Ugly Side of Progress: Telling the Whole Story

14 Sep

When I started this blog, I wanted to “create an archive of our efforts. A timeline, map and story that tracks our progress from our start at “no STEM program” to an “award winning STEM program”.

I realized recently that I have been sharing a pretty biased version of our school’s story all along. I tend to share when I’m excited and when I’m experiencing success.  I’m less likely to share when I’m upset and butting my head against failure and frustration.

I haven’t blogged about the endless hours I spent trying to put together budgets or researching programs and curriculum to include in our STEM grant proposals. I definitely haven’t written about the overwhelming feelings of inadequacy that I had while trying to piece that information together. I haven’t written about the rough days with the kids or the administrators when I felt like a poser, under-qualified for the tasks I was tackling, just doing my best to stay two steps ahead of the game. You get the picture.

I keep the ugly stuff to myself, but I shouldn’t, and here’s why.

The truth is that while we were writing our STEM grants last year, even the biggest and most well-known grantors, weren’t exactly sure what their STEM grants should include or how to ask schools to outline measurable outcomes when writing proposals. The truth is that teachers all over the country are starting robotics programs and introducing engineering projects without being subject matter experts, because if they don’t, no one will. The truth is that creating and implementing STEM curriculum is still new for most teachers in most schools, and it’s hard to know how and where to include it in the grand scheme of the school’s curriculum. The truth is that there are a lot of us out there just trying to figure out the best way to move forward in planning and implementing STEM programs in our schools.

If you have been tasked with getting a STEM program up and running at your school or in your district and you aren’t exactly sure what you are doing, here’s what I most want to share with you. There are many days when you just have to make a decision and go for it. Collect as much information and data as you can, and then jump in, cross your fingers, and have some faith.

Last year, I was starting to think I was on a completely fruitless mission. Some days, I literally felt like I had no idea what I was doing, but I just kept moving forward. This year, all those frustrating days and moments of faith have begun to pay off.

Thanks to all the hours spent with my colleague working on grants, a task that caused me indescribable job agita (I don’t know how he put up with me), we will be introducing a LEGO robotics unit and an Engineering is Elementary (EiE) unit to all students in grades 1-6, and we’ll get the professional development we need to do it well. Thanks to the hard work of the Math and Science Departments on campus, our entire math and science curriculum has been revamped and overhauled for grades 1-12 and we will being using a Physics First model on campus this year. Thanks to the numerous emails and visits with the outreach departments at U Penn SEAS and U PENN GRASP, Engineers without Borders will be on campus running an after school program this fall and we will offer an after school Bioengineering program in the spring.

Thanks to the countless times (bordering nagging) that I plugged an after school robotics program with after school program coordinators and administrators, we will kick off our first competitive FLL (First LEGO League) season this Monday.  We are even hosting an FLL qualifying event for 24 area robotics teams on our campus in December in collaboration with U PENN FLL.  Thanks to the hard work of a few very dedicated staff members, Greener Partners and students, our campus garden will head into its second year of production providing fresh produce for student meals. All those moments when we just jumped in, took a leap of faith and moved forward have begun to pay off.

So today…  there they were. A room full of girls, attention on me, waiting to hear what I had to offer. (Insert suspenseful anticipation here.) I gave my best plug. I made robotics club sound as exciting and as wonderful and as girl-er-iffic as I possibly could, but as I looked out I could see conflict all over their faces. What can I say? It’s hard to compete with cheerleading and dance. The girls can’t choose both, and I can’t blame them for being torn.

At the end of the meeting, out of the nine girls I was recruiting for this program, only one made a firm commitment to join the club. I didn’t show it, but I left feeling disheartened and wondering if my efforts had been completely in vain, wondering if all those meetings and emails and discussions were for nothing .

Then it hit me. Today was “an ugly side of progress” day. It was just one of those days when it feels like I’m doing it all wrong, when I’m doubting my efforts and my agenda, when I’m feeling defeated… 

But the truth is that today a seventh grade girl, who is absolutely brilliant and extremely talented, decided to commit to coming to robotics club for four days a week for the next four months of her life. She has a robotics club at her school now, and I helped make that happen. It starts with her. If I convinced her, I’m pretty sure she and I can convince at least four more girls to join and with five girls we’ll have plenty of girls for a first year team, and once the other girls on campus see these girls shine, they are going to want in…. and well… you see where I’m going. I have to cross my fingers and move forward.

So there you have it. It’s not always pretty… but it’s progress. What does progress look like in your school? 

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