On the heels of receiving four pink slips in as many years, California State University, Dominguez Hills alumna Janet Andrade was recently named the 2012-2013 Project Lead The Way (PLTW) California Teacher of the Year for her ability to engage students at Bud Carson Middle School in Hawthorne in progressively advanced hands-on engineering activities. The award was presented during the 2nd Annual Statewide PLTW Conference held in Sacramento in February.
“I was shocked when they announced my name. It was very unexpected,” recalled Andrade (Class of ’03, B.A. public administration; ’07, teaching credential, multiple subject; ’11, M.A., education curriculum and instruction), who is only in her first year of teaching PLTW’s introductory Gateway to Technology (GTT) curriculum.
It could be said that without those pink slips she may have never been in the position to receive the PLTW award. As a result of looming state budget cuts and through no fault of her own, the former kindergarten and first-grade teacher, along with several colleagues in her district, had been, in effect, laid off from their teaching positions at the end of each academic year from 2008 to 2011.
“I was very fortunate that I work for the Hawthorne School District. They were able to get everyone back each time,” she said.
But then she learned that a special teaching position was opening up at BCMS through PLTW, a national non-profit organization that partners with public schools, higher education institutions, and organizations in the private sector to increase the number and quality of students who may become engineers, technologists, or biomedical professionals. Made possible through a portion of a $125,000 two-year grant from Chevron, and in partnership with El Camino College, the PLTW GTT program was being implemented at Bud Carson (BCMS) for the first time in the 2012-13 school year.
As a single mother with a mortgage to pay, and unwilling to rely on the chance of getting her job back again, she applied for the PLTW position and was selected.
After a two-week summer intensive training course held at San Diego State University, Andrade, a self-described nerd who always enjoyed building things, took on the challenge to teach the GTT engineering-based coursework related to energy and the environment, automation and robotics, and design and modeling.
What sets PLTW apart from regular classrooms is the challenging year-long hands-on engineering and technology project- and problem-based learning coursework that teaches students how to apply what they are learning to real-life situations.
The students complete 10 tasks—from building and programming a robot or a car that can travel 20 feet or an elevator, to designing a solar-powered home—all with some of the same advanced modeling software used by companies such as Lockheed Martin, Intel, and Sprint.
Although she considers herself somewhat computer savvy, Andrade admitted teaching design and modeling was a bit intimidating at first.
“The software we use for Project Lead the Way can be a little complicated, so I have to practice a lot,” she said.
In addition to the GTT courses, Andrade also began teaching a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) course at BCMS that reinforces what her students learn in their regular introductory algebra class. A few of her students won medals at a Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) competition in March, which was sponsored by and held at the University of Southern California.
“I’ve always been pretty good in math. That’s been my strength and that’s why I wasn’t too afraid to take on teaching a math class,” said Andrade, who was herself a MESA medal winner in the math test and egg drop engineering project when she was a student at Walton Middle School in Compton, and was just eight units shy of a double major in math when she received her bachelor’s from CSU Dominguez Hills.
But it’s not all numbers and figures; she also teaches students how to communicate effectively through reading, writing, and speaking skills. Possibly most importantly, Andrade stimulates their imagination and opens their minds to possibilities that await them.
“Usually I ask the students at the beginning of the school year, ‘What are your career goals?’ Even with kindergartners,” the Los Angeles native said. “I’ve had a lot of students tell me they want to work for TSA (Transportation Security Administration at Los Angeles International Airport). Because their parents work in entry-level positions there, that was their goal.”
But the former Toro and member of the Phi Sigma Sigma sorority (whose motto is “Aim High”), urges her students to raise the bar and consider other options as well. For many of them, after they’ve had a chance to work on PLTW projects their outlook does change.
“Now some of my students are actually considering a career in engineering. They just need to be exposed,” Andrade asserted.
In preparation to teach the same cohort next year, Andrade will attend a one-week summer intensive in bio-medical engineering at Cal Poly Pomona.
While Andrade has found that funding from the grant doesn’t cover everything for the PLTW projects, she has come up with creative solutions to purchase additional classroom materials. She posts requests on Facebook and DonorChoose, an online charitable repository for teachers, and she takes every opportunity to sign up for giveaways at conferences and training seminars.
“I even contacted Spanish radio station Super Estrella. One of the DJs agreed to go out on a dinner with a winning person as a raffle prize,” Andrade said. “I’m doing whatever I can to keep the program running.”
Her efforts to make the program a success at BCMS is driven by her passion to see her students succeed—the reason she was chosen as PLTW Teacher of the Year. The 13 judges who served on the PLTW panel were able to see that for themselves when they observed her in the classroom as part of the selection process for the award. But believing that students may be the best judges, PLTW only considered nominations that came with videos of students explaining why they think their teacher should be honored.
“I told my students that I didn’t care so much about the award, but what I did care about was that the winning teacher would get a VEX kit, which is a robotics kit,” Andrade recalled, estimating it’s value at $1,000. “I am in great need of supplies so I told the students, ‘This isn’t for me, it’s for you.’”
About not knowing which students submitted a nominating video, she said, “It doesn’t matter, I won the VEX kit!”