Passion-driven teachers are the spark that ignites students’ imaginations. That’s why NSHSS loves to brag about these unsung heroes. Empowerment begins by enabling students to understand the role models they interact with daily—their teachers. Here are some insights from one of our favorite teachers who brings a wealth of knowledge and creativity to the classroom. This Q & A below showcases the passion, intellect and spirit of innovation Ronald Brandt shares with his students every day.
Educator: Ronald Brandt, PhD
School: West Orange High School in West Orange, New Jersey
Endorsements: NSHSS 2015 Conference Grant Winner
Author of District Curriculum for Research Methods Seminar Founder of Science National Honor Society
What got you into science/ technology?
I enjoyed my science and math classes throughout grade school. I attended a specialized high school in New York City (Brooklyn Tech), which was a very intensive, hands on, science & technology experience. My 10th grade chemistry teacher was very inspiring and led me to focus on chemistry as an educational pathway and career track. As a young chemical engineer, my focus shifted to concentrating on the impact of technology and managing the economics of bringing new products to market.
What person/ambitions inspire your work?
My goal as an executive in the chemicals industry was to help bring products to the market, which represented an improvement for society. This connection was easy to understand in my involvement with pharmaceutical development, nutrition, health and hygiene products. But it was also the case with industrial products. In many cases, newer products were safer to use, environmentally friendly, energy efficient and more economic than previous generations of products. As a high school science teacher, I seek to impress my students with the excitement of what can be accomplished through technology and an understanding of how to approach problems that need to be solved.
What has been your biggest project success?
I use Project Based Learning (PBL) in all of my classes. The students research real world problems and investigate possible solutions. I set the stage by introducing the project and announcing that the President has asked for their advice on a major problem, e.g., finding alternative energy sources. The students work in teams to investigate and report their findings and recommendations to the President and Cabinet (fellow students). PBL appeals to all levels of students and shows the students how they can apply what they have learned in class into possible solutions for the betterment of our society. I believe that it is very important to make science “real” instead of a collection of abstract concepts. Students are excited about using their knowledge as a basis for problem solving. The students also come to realize that there are no easy solutions. Every improvement will bring new consequences that will have to be managed. For example, corn based ethanol helps relieve some of the issues of burning fossil fuels, but producing ethanol ties up considerable land resources and drives up the cost of food.
What makes you want women to be in STEM careers?
Women are a significantly underutilized resource in our country, especially with respect to science and technology. Women represent more than 50% of the undergraduate population in the U.S., but less than 25% of STEM majors. An even smaller number of women major in engineering. Additionally, women in STEM careers earn 35% more on average than women in other careers. So, in a global competitive market place, our country is missing out on the valuable brain power that women have to offer, and at the same time, many talented women are missing out on a good career opportunity.
Tell us more about your plans for the annual American Society for Engineering Education Conference in Seattle.
The desire to attract more women into STEM careers is gaining significant attention. The White House created new funding and policy initiatives having a special focus on attracting more women. Educational organizations and institutions across the country are focusing on attracting more women into STEM. While the number of women majoring in pure sciences (especially life sciences) has increased in the past years, the numbers of women entering engineering has remained stagnant at only 18% of the student population. The ASEE is a national forum where I can present my research into some of the factors which influence a woman’s decision to consider an engineering career. The reasons limiting women’s participation in STEM are cultural and this can be changed. Engineering is perceived as a male career. I want our schools to add more of a focus onto what women can accomplish by bringing their talents into engineering. This is the basis for my research and what I will be presenting at the ASEE.
What blogs/news keeps you relevant?
I make a concerted effort to stay current. I read a variety of professional journals covering scientific developments and science education. I am glad that the publications are also available electronically, as I post interesting articles for my students to read (through our Google Docs platform and Edmodo). I am also an active participant in nationally based science teacher blogs that I receive daily. I belong to national professional societies in the sciences and science education as well as local science teacher peer support groups.
What are your web quests?
I have a number of web based research projects, many of which are energy based. First year chemistry students are researching alternative biofuels. Second year (AP) chemistry students, have more freedom of choice in topics, but some are looking at clean coal technology ideas. Other web topics may involve drug development, alternative periodic tables and battery development / energy storage. I also established an elective Research Methods course in our high school, in which students investigate the methodology of professional scientific research.
What are your other technology based methods of instruction?
I use a SMART Board in my classroom and our school is now starting to have a broader availability of lap tops and chrome books. The University of Colorado has a web site “PhET”, which has many scientific simulations in which the students can manipulate variables and have a “hands on” learning experience. It is almost a virtual lab activity. PhET applications are primarily JAVA based, which the students can use with the SMART board and lap top computers. PhET is now starting to develop applets in HTML 5, which is chrome book compatible. I also conduct a variety of inquiry based labs in my classes using “Vernier” software and the lap tops for data collection and analysis. These labs engage the students through the use of modern technology as well as the challenge of designing their own lab procedures based on objectives to be achieved.
Any advice for students looking at STEM majors?
Students looking at STEM majors and careers should have a passion for science and a desire to understand our Universe. They are students who want to know how and why things happen, and have more questions than answers. They want to learn something new every day. Curiosity and a passion for learning is a guarantee of success in STEM.
What do you want your students to remember?
I want students to remember that science is fun and is relevant to their lives. I’ve told my students, that even if you do not envision yourself in a science based career, I want you to leave my class well informed and literate about how science impacts our world. We need scientifically knowledgeable lawyers, educators, musicians and painters, in addition to scientists, engineers and doctors. This mix of talents is what makes our country great. Science plays a role in all of their lives. I want them to understand how to better manage our society through science.