Katie Schenkel: Supporting Students to be Instruments of Change
Katie Schenkel, in her second year of teaching as an ACE Teaching Fellow at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in New Orleans, had her seventh grade class bring in objects, news articles, or stories about science happening in their lives. Katie had no idea how important this activity would be for one of her students, who had never previously displayed much interest in science class. This student brought in a picture of herself sitting next to her pet tortoise.
The student described to her classmates how she used science when she cared for her tortoise. Her voice was filled with excitement while her classmates were genuinely interested in her pet and the type of ecosystem in which it lives. Up to that point, Katie didn’t even know her student had a pet or how much she knew about it. She did notice immediately how important it was to the student, and the ways in which she used science to take care of the tortoise. Katie also noticed how this activity positioned her student in a way that valued the student’s own experiences.
That small event and conversation that followed between Katie and her student influenced Katie’s perception of her students and of education. Together, Katie and her student talked about how the tortoise was connected to the ecosystem unit they just finished, when the student got the tortoise, and how to keep using the tortoise as an example throughout class. Together, they pinned the picture of the student and her pet on the bulletin board at the front of the classroom, which is where it remained throughout the rest of the year.
In that moment, Katie realized that she wasn’t simply a science teacher. Every child that stepped into her classroom brought with them their own experiences and perspectives that impacted their ability to learn as well as their worldview. It started Katie thinking about the real purpose of science education for children: how could she make science education more meaningful for her students? How could she ensure that the science they were learning connected to their actual life experience? For Katie, it was more than just saying to students, “You could be an engineer or scientist.” Instead, she thought about how teachers and Catholic schools could use science education to support children and their communities.
Katie is now in her second year at Michigan State University in the Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education doctoral program. She’s studying the ways that teachers can support students by using science and engineering in meaningful ways. She wants to help children see themselves as capable of becoming science experts and, even more importantly, as active agents in addressing vital community concerns that matter to them. Katie truly believes that the young scientists in our midst are important instruments for change, and she is interested in studying ways that she can help teachers support their students as well as help students understand the significance of their work.
Today, Katie is working on a research project under Angie Barton, a leader in the teacher education field and a professor at MSU. The project, called I-Engineering, is in the middle of a pilot that researches an energy curriculum focused on making school communities become more sustainable. The curriculum asks teachers and students to identify a community problem through survey and observation and then to create an engineering design that uses green energy to find a solution. The students have come up with ideas that may be very different from the ideas that might appeal to an adult, but Katie says that this is exactly the way to get children interested in becoming agents of change. So far, students have created talking trash and recycling bins: the trash cans remind the students to check if the object can be recycled and the recycling bins offer support and praise. In other energy units, students have created bulletin boards that light up using a green energy source, which increases morale while addressing global climate change. Through these practical applications of science, students feel as though they are making a difference in their very own communities.
As Katie continues her work in the MSU doctoral program, she often harkens back to that one conversation with her eighth-grader in ACE, when it became clear that her work as a science teacher needed to connect to the experiences and perspectives of her students. Today, she is dedicated to giving students new experiences, new understandings of how science can help them see the world, and new opportunities to become agents of change in their world.
Katie Schenkel served as an AmeriCorps member at Our Lady of Prompt Succor in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Are you a STEM teacher who is looking to use science, technology, engineering, and math to support students as instruments of change? Consider applying to be a part of our next cohort of Trustey Family STEM Teaching Fellows, a fully funded fellowship for middle grade teachers (5th - 8th) of STEM disciplines. Visit https://stemeducation.nd.edu/trustey to learn more and submit your application before March 1st.