Two participants in the STEMteachersPHX Conference build prototype of a smartphone case

STEMteachersPHX Conference helps teachers inspire students to pursue STEM studies

By

Amanda Stoneman

Teachers and school administrators became students for a day — enacting the role of both engineer and client — to design and build a rough prototype of a smartphone case.

This human-centered engineering challenge opened discourse on inspiring students to pursue studies in engineering as part of the inaugural STEMteachersPHX Conference on Feb. 3.

Co-hosted by Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, the conference aimed to help teachers and administrators build strong programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to boost efforts in Arizona’s schools and encourage students’ interest in STEM fields.

“Not all local science teachers have heard of us,” said Wendy Hehemann, the executive officer on the steering committee for STEMteachersPHX and a national workshop coordinator for the American Modeling Teachers Association. “We want to be a bigger player in informal science education for pre-service and in-service teachers, where teachers can come network in an informal and fun setting.”

The steering committee — made up of science, chemistry, physics and mathematics teachers — invited specialists in technology, engineering and math to show how to integrate STEM into the classroom. Hehemann said teachers need to be well educated in the field to better prepare students for the future.

“Having Arizona students grounded in scientific knowledge as well as logical and critical thinking is extremely important,” said Mark Huerta, a second-year doctoral candidate in engineering education who was a keynote speaker at the conference. “STEM majors, in particular, have the ability to innovate and create technical solutions that make a positive impact on the world.”

Huerta shared how he was able to scale an undergraduate project in the Fulton Schools' Engineering Projects in Community Service program into a full-fledged social enterprise called 33 Buckets. The nonprofit organization provides clean drinking water to thousands of people in Bangladesh, Peru and the Dominican Republic — with a goal to more than double the number of communities served by this summer.

“I want to inspire teachers to go beyond traditional classroom lectures that focus on students memorizing facts and processes to integrating real and authentic experiences that engage students in learning,” said Huerta, the chairman and director of projects at 33 Buckets. 

In addition to Huerta’s keynote, teachers and school administrators had the opportunity to hear from students who participated in the International Science and Engineering Fair, the Arizona SciTech’s Chief Science Officers program and EPICS High to learn what motivates and engages them in STEM.

Additional conference sessions included how to create a maker and coding day; how students can start solving problems for charities, schools and nonprofit organizations; and how to address the minority and gender gaps in STEM fields.

“It’s no secret that industry is in constant need of a qualified and diverse workforce,” said Jennifer Velez, the Fulton Schools' coordinator senior of K-12 Engineering Education and Outreach and EPICS High. “Teachers know this and are working hard to inspire and empower their students to pursue and persist in STEM.”