Teach Wonder

The Puzzle that We're All Trying to Solve

September 12, 2021 The Center for Excellence in STEM Education Season 1 Episode 5
Teach Wonder
The Puzzle that We're All Trying to Solve
Show Notes Transcript

We connected with Rich Van Tol, a dynamic leader at Bay Arenac ISD. Rich shares what STEM means to him, and how out-of-school educators are working together to support children in the region. Listen in to hear Rich talk about the importance of focusing on equity and one exciting new project that has come from those conversations.

Out of School Time
STEM Activities Calendar
STEM Passport
Center for Excellence in STEM Education

Ashley O'Neil:

Okay, now we're recording.

Julie Cunningham:

So welcome to teach, wonder.

Ashley O'Neil:

Welcome to teach wonder A podcast hosted by Ashley O'Nial and

Julie Cunningham:

Julie Cunningham.

Ashley O'Neil:

So I'm going to be honest, before we started this interview and share something when I was a classroom teacher, I don't think that I fully understood the value of community partnerships that were happening around me. knowing what I know, now, I'm really sad to admit that I had this sort of a siloed mentality and thinking that the magic happened in my classroom between the hours of eight and three, and they were these extra resources, but people could find them themselves. And that wasn't meant really my job to be that conduit or that connector. Now, though, I know better. And I get a little bit wistful even thinking about some of the things that I missed out on, or that my students missed out on opportunities that were available to them in the community that I didn't necessarily think were for us or for me. So I think that this interview today is pretty exciting, because it does focus on and highlight some of the really amazing work that's happening and supporting students and families in schools, outside of the classroom and outside of the school building. So Julie, you know, a little bit more about rich and what he does, would you mind sharing a little bit of your perspectives before we start the interview?

Julie Cunningham:

Sure. No, I don't mind at all. So in the Great Lakes Bay region, there was a some ecosystem impact report done a number of years ago, and it's recently been updated to reflect some of the work that's been done in the region. And so there's a number of different bullet points that this report hits on, but one of them is the out of school time network or the out of school time work being done, and the culture of STEM in the region. And so I think rich and tall and is out of school time network plays a large role in the resources that are available to and understood by our communities in our eight counties. And so part of what Rich's group does as they meet monthly, and when I say his group, I mean, it's often people who work in this sort of before and after school, sort of environment or community base. And also, then others may be like us who sort of think of ourselves as informal educators, right? We're here to support schools and children and teachers, but we are not in a K-12 School, generally. We might bring our programs to K 12 schools, but we are not classroom currently classroom teachers. So this organization gets together, and they try to meet some shared goals in addition to what each of their organizations does. And so one of the goals, I think that has been important that they've taken out in region is thinking about thinking about addressing equity in the region, right? So thinking about what can they do that would allow for all students, all families to access the STEM programs and stem rich institutions in the region. So there's this idea

Ashley O'Neil:

that whether it's a museum in our area, or a park system in our area, or an after school program in our area, there's a an identified need to say, there's a disconnect between who knows about us who can get to us who has access in all the ways that that word access means to our programs? And how can we maybe fix that disconnect, or less than that disconnect so that more people can reach these things? And I know, for me, and for my students, sometimes it was just not knowing right, so we'll talk about some of that programs that Rick has has going on in the area. And there's some things that I didn't know. So sometimes it's just getting the word out there that, hey, this is a free community event that's happening. It's a block from your house, would you like to come? Sometimes it's a financial equity piece where we make sure that things are accessible that way, is that right?

Julie Cunningham:

I think I think that's a big part of it. Also, I think that his group, the school time network, has worked hard to say hard at saying, instead of having random acts of STEM around the region, let's try to be purposeful about what we're offering and who we're offering them to, and have some thread through all of our programs that's consistent. So instead of all of these one off programs all over the region, can we have some continuity, not in terms of what the programs are. But in terms of maybe the benchmarks that we meet, or the ways in which we engage with the K 12 schools or so I think it's Yes, it's about the accessibility that you mentioned, and the ways in which you talked about equity, but also making sure that these programs are regional and making sure that there's some thing that kind of ties them together that the group has decided isn't important.

Ashley O'Neil:

I like that. Because when we think about education, and we take a step back from it, we all I think, recognis and agree that a public school, you know, charter school, a classroom, a building a physical building, a physical school is a place where education happens. But we also recognize maybe for our kids, or for our students, the importance of going to the museum on a Saturday morning, or having a nature walk with grandma and grandpa on the weekend, or having access or the availability of summer camps in our space. And that really good learning happens in those places. So this is taking a look at education. That doesn't happen inside the classrooms, taking a look at who's a part of that, who's having these conversations, what they're talking about, and what they're doing to try to support the children in our region. Does that sounds like a good summary.

Julie Cunningham:

Yes, that sounds like a great summary. And additionally, I will say that we're to be very humble everyone out here that knows the interview. He's very humble about the work that he's done. And he mentioned collaborations often, and I wholeheartedly agree with him that most of this work wouldn't be done without collaborations and that the work is much stronger than more conversations we have across the region, but also to give rich credit he key facilitates those conversations and those collaborations and a lot of the work wouldn't be done without his facilitation of those.

Ashley O'Neil:

Definitely, and I will say he is very humble to interview. So keep listening, listen carefully for those the ways in which rich keeps all these pieces moving. So if you're a classroom teacher, this is a great opportunity for you to listen to see who else in your community is doing education and what that looks like to them, to maybe hear about some resources and opportunities that are available for your students, for your families. If you're not in our area, this is a great still a great interview for you to listen to, to hear about the ways in which community partners support children in that in your area, and maybe to be inspired to connect with those resources or to find out who those individuals are. So without further ado, we're really excited to share this interview with you. Enjoy.

Julie Cunningham:

We are lucky to have with us this afternoon, Rich Van Tol from the Bay Area ISD and the way in which rich and I work most closely as usually from STEM education for the Great Lakes Bay region. And so rich hosts the out of school time network for the Great Lakes Bay region, Alliance. And Amanda's has done a lot of work in the area of STEM education, stem ecosystem and access and equity. So I think we have lots of really interesting things to talk with rich about this afternoon. And I think everyone will find, find something that one of the hats that rich wears interesting because there are a number of different hats. So without further ado, Ashley, do you want to ask the first question or ...

Ashley O'Neil:

That sounds good. I was like, how many hats does Rich have? Let's list them all Before we go so rich? I don't know you as well, as Julie does. I've heard about you and the work that you've been up to. But would you mind just starting by telling us a little bit about yourself your background to get started?

Rich VanTol:

Sure. Yeah. So thanks for having me. I was happy to be asked to share some more information about some of the work that I do in particular, also the stem impact initiative. So Rich pantile, I work for the Bay Area Intermediate School District, as Julie said, that's sort of like my, my full time gig, my daytime gig and I supervise. So my title is actually a supervisor of School, home and community partnerships. And I focus mostly on early childhood education, I kind of find myself working in a lot of different different areas of community and economic development work and talent development. We're kind of focused on cradle to career talent development, but a little bit more focused and oriented toward the early years. So from from birth to about third grade with regard to programs and initiatives that I support in Bay Area counties. So I've been doing I've been here at Bay Arenac ISD for six years doing this this work, but prior to that I was at the secondary Intermediate School District for about 20 years in the Genesee Intermediate School District for three years. So I've worked in a lot of sort of diverse settings different Types of communities and worked in, you know, rural areas, suburban areas, urban areas with a lot of diverse stakeholders and constituents focused work has largely been focused on. So like early childhood education, but school health school safety, preschool programs, home visiting programs, programs that serve families with young children in, in the communities where I've worked.

Ashley O'Neil:

Wow, that's, that's comprehensive, right? Sounds like an entire department, not just one individual. So who are some of the individuals who maybe work with you? Um, and kind of support some of the things that you're talking about?

Rich VanTol:

Yeah, no, that's a great question. Because, you know, it isn't like a one person show. You have to leverage community partners in collaborate. And I think, with the work that I do, whether it's at the Bay Arenac ISD, are the work I'm doing for the Great Lakes Bay Regional alliance in the Out of School Time STEM Network. In any of those instances, it's always critical that you're partnering with other community agencies and individuals, because no one person or agency can do it all. You have to leverage assets in terms of talent, people, and also agencies in other community assets and supports to be able to do a lot of the work that I referenced, and a lot of the work that I helped convene. If I use the words, I use some of these words, kind of intentionally, like convened in both my role at the ISD in the school home and community work is this convening partners, community agencies and partners that have a priority to serve families, and children. And then Moreover, in the STEM work, and that I do, again, I'm a can act as a convener and convene agencies out of school time stem network is comprised of organizations like museums and schools, and stem rich institutions, as well as before and after school programs, summer programs, and sort of a large array of programs that serve kids when they're not in school, it's out of school time, so it's when kids aren't in school. And, and we know that learners, that students, they spend the majority of their time, like two thirds of their time, not in school. So it's really important that if we're going to address issues as they relate to stem in talent, that we make sure that we have robust partnerships, collaboration in resources available to students when they're not in school, like before, after school programs, summer programs, stembridge, institutions, etc, etc. And then also, last certainly not least, is working with families and parents and caregivers that support students in these types of settings.

Julie Cunningham:

So I have a couple of follow up questions for you Rich, and I'm trying to work out in my head in which order they belong. So I'm going to say them both, and we can come back to either one. But I'm wondering, I feel like you've had the out of school time network now the summer school time network now for maybe four or five years. Is that about right? Yes. Five years. Okay, so I'm wondering how you've seen that change as you've worked with it. And then I'm also wondering if there's any one or two programs that you're especially proud of, or that you'd like to highlight?

Rich VanTol:

Yeah, so in terms of change, I think just the collaboration, it's really been sort of serendipitous, I think, and somewhat just organic, the way the collaboration has evolved over time. It's amazing when you bring talented people together, in situations where you're just sort of informally sometimes networking and talking and sharing ideas. It's incredible. The, the you know that as a powerful recipe for change, just having people together to, to network and to brainstorm, and to bounce ideas off of and to learn from each other. So each time we do an out of school time stem network meeting, Julie, you know, this is we give sort of more generic updates. But then we have, we always have at least a few people who give presentations about the work that they're doing, whether it's a library system, or the zoo, or the planetarium or, you know, museum or before and after school program. We always have someone share something that they're doing and that they're passionate about, that they think is impacting outcomes related to stem talent. And it's always powerful. It's always I always learned I mean, I benefit from from it as much as anybody else in the room because we're always learning in learning from each other. And those relationships are so key. I just think that Julia, for instance, I mean, you've cultivated new relationships from participating in the School of time stem network and those new relationships have helped see the Center for Education at CMU, connect with programs and services that serve children. And and by way of that networking and relationships now is there's a change there, that happens, right. But there's new things happening for kids because of those relationships you've established with other people and agencies as we've done this work for the past five years.

Julie Cunningham:

And also, just for our listeners benefit, Rich's very humble about the work that he does. And he says that he's a convener, which is true, but a lot of this work wouldn't have come about without, which is diligence in this area. So I appreciate that you're humble about about the work and not taking credit for. But I don't know that you take enough credit, either. So we're so rich, is there any one or two programs that you that come out of this work that you want to highlight on the podcast? Is there any

Rich VanTol:

What stands out to me the most to the most, particularly the past couple years is our focus on STEM access and equity. And, and I think that's going to be moving forward, it's just going to continue to be a priority for us. We know for a lot of families, unfortunately, access to a lot of these stem resources that are available, that it doesn't readily happen, whether it's just a simple gap in awareness. Sometimes families in students just aren't aware of their the zoo. I mean, you know, we used to we do an annual event with my other job at the zoo every year is based our day at the zoo. And I can't tell you how many families who come from neighborhoods surrounding the zoo that have never been to the zoo before, just because of an access issue and an awareness issue. And they weren't, you know, they're not sure that the zoo is open to the, you know, to the public. And it's like, oh, man, just an awareness piece. So I think we have to continue to do more about access and equity and do more about awareness. One particular sort of specific project that we've embarked upon the last couple of years is what we've been calling a stem passport. And we've, what we've tried to do is aggregate a lot of the out of school time stem network partners and put them in, feature them into a stem passport, and then make the SM passport readily available to 36,000 families across the Great Lakes Bay region, just so we could showcase some of the resources that are available. And then in addition to that, a lot of the pages of the passport, there's a coupon, like a buy one, get one for admission, just little things to help kind of mitigate, sometimes maybe the financial barrier to accessing a place like a museum or a zoom, for instance. And so awareness, and access and equity and helping to mitigate some of those entrance fees, is one sort of project that we've undertaken, that I think we'll continue to try to do. And then kind of along those lines is sort of like a sneak preview of maybe what's to come is we're having some conversations with an app developer about the possibility to move forward to create our own application, our own virtual application to showcase all of these stembridge institutions and assets on your phone on your mobile device, and make it free to families. That's our goal is to have a free app on a mobile that you can download to your mobile device. And then it would, again, this is very speculative right now, but what we're talking about in concept is it would geo locate where you are. And then based on your geo location, it would show you the nearest sort of museum and planetarium in the zoo and help help guide you if you will, to the nearest stembridge since the tension in your neighborhood, and then if you're looking for like things to do with your family on a like a weekend, when you have extra time or over the summer, it would also feature those as well. And you can kind of just using this geolocation in this mapping service through the app, be able to identify and find places to go with your kids and your family to have really awesome stem experiences right here in the Great Lakes Bay region, which has this a lot to offer.

Julie Cunningham:

Yeah, it does. Ashley, I promise to let you ask the next question. But I I just want to say that I appreciate rich that you move that conversation forward in the region. So regardless of how many of us participate in whether it's the stem passport, or just the access and equity conversation in general, I think just having that conversation in the region has been a benefit to the region, right. And then the other thing I'll say for our podcast listeners is that we will have a link to the passport that Rich's talking about so that you can find out more information if you're interested. So I'll turn it over to Ashley.

Ashley O'Neil:

Well, I'm still thinking about like, from a personal standpoint, you were mentioning a lot of resources in places in the area that I live. Right and I have a family and I'm going yeah, we haven't been there. Yeah, we haven't done that yet. And it Really keys into me just that that identity piece of seeing myself as someone who takes my kid to the planetarium. Right. And then knowing it's available knowing it's open to me, I think the fact that you're starting from the family standpoint there, it's just really helpful. Thinking about here I am someone who is in the STEM field, and I still see some of those barriers. That's great. You mentioned stem rich places. And I guess the question I like to go next is how do you define stem and STEM education? Because we've talked a lot about how it is different and you, you have a bit of a business angle, right? Because you're doing this this this young child to business pipeline, but you also work on the early childhood field, and what that looks like maybe colored a little bit by the age group or the family aspect. So what does that look like to you?

Rich VanTol:

Yeah, well, in terms of a definition, I probably have a looser definition than most people, I admit that I think of, you know, 21st century learning skills as being really critical to learning STEM and I use like STEM and STEAM interchangeably add arts. So in my mind, in my opinion, right, this is just my opinion, is that anything that helps contribute to widen sort of experiences, knowledge and skills, whether it be communication, whether it be networking, whether it be relationships, whether it be social, even I've even sort of broaden it out to social emotional learning, being able to know more about better understand yourself, better able to be empathetic towards others to be able to know form relationships, and communicate and team building and problem solving all these critical skills that everybody needs to function in today's world. In my mind, again, that I think it stems I think, I think it contributes to stem I think it's part of the puzzle that we're all trying to solve. And we try to, you know, to create talent for the for the region. So it's a pretty broad definition in a nutshell, in my mind, not to say that when we start talking about specific places, in the places we feature, for instance, on the passport, we will probably are talking more stem steam oriented places and experiences. But I think of like, one of our biggest partners in this work is the Chippewa Nature Center. And sometimes people don't readily leap to nature centers or outdoor education centers as stem and steam. I absolutely do. And the work that they do is powerful. Our library systems, most most people affiliate or associate libraries with literacy, but the work that they're doing around science, technology, engineering, and math, and across the Great Lakes Bay region is powerful work. And it demonstrates that they're not just doing work around literacy, it's definitely more child oriented. And it also includes STEM.

Ashley O'Neil:

I love that. I think that's great. I think the broader your umbrella, right? Then you can see the value in things and it gives you some flexibility, which is fantastic. And you bring up a lot of the points that we also share, right? Some of those maybe indefinable skills that don't fit in just math or fit in just reading but you know, are good to raising, you know, wonderful human beings. Yeah, that's a that's a stem. That's a critical thinking skill. So that's great. All right, Julie, I'll let you ask the next question. Okay,

Julie Cunningham:

so Rich, I know that we've kind of gone back and forth about trying to be inclusive in the work, I guess maybe like, we always we think about how to include out of school time providers, childcare providers, and professional learning opportunities for teachers. If teachers classroom teachers are listening this podcast, do you see a role for them with the out of school time network? Sort of that kind of reverse question?

Rich VanTol:

Yeah, um, so it's interesting, one of my early inventors in this work it and she would. So Carolyn, who kind of started to stem impact initiative. And when we started to do some work with the STEM learning ecosystems, they mentioned that the gold standard for this work would be having side by side, formal educators sitting side by side with informal educators. So in school and out of school time educators, all sort of having similar professional development opportunities to be able to grow stem talent, collectively, in a sort of a shared collaborative role, where one would supplement or augment the other. And so that's kind of like the gold standard of what we've been trying to achieve. Back since the Caroline weird days, when we kind of started the seven impact initiative back when Carolyn was sort of mentoring me to start the out of school time stamp network, and I think it's still applies today is the more that we can do that and to drive that as a priority, where formal educators can help support informal educators and vice versa, because I think they can both learn from each other, the better off we're going to be systemically. If we're able To achieve more of that for the region, absolutely,

Ashley O'Neil:

I think that's so great. Julie and I both were formal educators, if you will, meaning we both were in the classroom. And now here we are in this informal place. And so we straddle our memories of being a classroom teacher with our current practices being informal. And just the idea of that being really fluid is so fantastic.

Rich VanTol:

I mean, when you think of like, out of school time, I mean, personally, I think, if I were to go back and go back into teaching, I almost would want to do more of the other school time stuff, because it gives you so much flexibility and opportunity to do things and be creative with learning. And I think of place based learning, for example, in PBL. And I think, in many aspects, in many regards, there's more flexibility and opportunity for that and the out of school time space than there is in the formal education space, given sort of the rigor, the academic rigor that's been sort of imposed on the formal education system. Yeah.

Julie Cunningham:

That was, that's where my mind went to Rich, I was thinking that that's almost a place that place based education is almost a place in which if a classroom teacher is going to do it, and do it well, right, like, they almost need the informal educators. If not like data like location, right? I'm just thinking like, the Chippewa Nature Center, again, makes it great location for place based education, and natural tie into a classroom. And so it's almost like those two things coming up. The formal education and the informal education coming together for playspace is like the perfect the perfect storm, so to speak.

Ashley O'Neil:

Yeah, and it takes the work off of everybody's plate a little bit like if the teachers not saying, Okay, how can I take this field trip, right? Like, we get rid of that field trip word, and how can I take this field trip and make this work in my classroom, but instead, there's this collaboration happening, where they are sitting side by side at the table and building these experiences, then there's more, there's more voices, there's more minds like tackling a problem. And it's not on the teacher or all on the the chip on Nature Center provider to build an experience.

Rich VanTol:

Actually, you probably aren't aware of this, but Julia is keenly aware of it. So one of the things we did to sort of intentionally stimulate some of this activity were stem access and equity, many grants that we made available to, to the region. And then it has one of the requirements for these mini grants was that there be collaboration and partnerships between formal and informal educators and agencies to work together on these, some of them were placed based learning opportunities, and some of them were just other opportunities to leverage sort of captive audiences, if you will. But but it forced in formal and informal educators to come together the right to proposals to come up with their budget, to come up with their with their program, what they were going to implement, and then also report out on your outcomes in and I and I must say, again, I can't take a lot of credit for this. Because when we raised we wouldn't we raised money through a number of different funders next year morally, and then the my stem network, and then we act as kind of as a fiduciary for it, and then pass the money out to these local collaborative groups that were doing this work. It was incredible work. And it continues to be incredible work, the examples that came out from this on the projects that were implemented, were just incredible, and continue to be incredible. If you give I think, I think you could give professionals that work in this space, a little bit of just a little bit of money, a little bit of time, a little bit of money and resource. They can do amazing things for kids.

Julie Cunningham:

Yeah, yeah, you're right. And it You're right. It's not. It's not a ton of money, necessarily, but when it's applied to support, like to directly support the participants of the program, right. Not salaries necessarily of the I think the institutions that come to that gathering the grant are often providing the expertise or the personnel but the to see what the participants get out of the end result of the collaboration is, is really great. Yes.

Rich VanTol:

I got a backup. It was Strosacker not morally, like you always got to make sure your funders get their reco nition because we really coul n't do it without it.

Julie Cunningham:

That's true. I was gonna ask, do you are there some education resources that you recommend? You talked about the passport? That's a great regional recommendation? Is there anything else that is like your go to like, can't miss this?

Rich VanTol:

Yeah, we have. I just put in the chat box. The stem pipeline comm calendar. Also, we've been really good partnership with Great Lakes Bay Packers. And then they also, we've integrated a lot of the stuff that's on the Great Lakes Bay parents calendar and their platform into the stem pipeline platform, we just kind of built it out a little bit differently, more focused on STEM, I put it in the chat box. But there are literally things for families to do every day right here in our backyard. And we have it all sort of aggregated. And this serves as sort of our repository, if you will, of things to do on a day to day basis. And I mean, there's a lot of other content on the stem pipeline website. But I use this because if you know, families are asking what to do, or if I'm looking for something to do, this is a great reference site to be able to find really fun and often time mostly free activities right here in the region. I'm just taking a look at it right now. So for those of you who can't look at it at the moment, there are things like open for the season, from the Saginaw zoo, there's the shiawassee, Nature Center, nature refuge, right, where you can have the wild drive open, which I didn't know about until just this year, which is great. And then there's access or information about summer camps in the area. things that you can do with your whole family or things that you can register your kids for. So really,it's quite comprehensive. This gets updated on the day to day basis. And so it's always pretty, pretty fresh, freshly updated with current content.

Julie Cunningham:

I think Rich u less Ashley has any follow up q estions for you. I just am w ndering, is there anything you w nt to tell us about that? We h ven't thought to ask you, or a y last minute thoughts or last l st thoughts that you want to s are with us regarding stem Ed?

Rich VanTol:

Yeah, no, this once again, thank you for your time, I kind of already did the reveal about this passport app that we're really excited about. We're still in the early exploratory phases. But we we really think that holds promise to help kind of just accelerate what we've been doing along the lines of promoting stem resources in the region, and then affording some families and maybe a little bit better access and awareness through through an app. So we're really, really excited about that. The other things I didn't mention if folks want more information about and it's kind of along the lines of access to equity, we do have some funding available, particularly for students serving organizations in schools in Saginaw county for transportation funds, oftentimes, in terms of getting students to establish us attention for from a school based program is difficult and challenging because of not having access to transportation dollars or funding to support the transportation costs. So we do have some mini grants available there to help mitigate some of those transportation costs. We can't say it enough collaboration, collaboration, collaboration in relationships, that's the real power in this. That's the secret sauce, if you will, and we've seen a lot of good work in just five years, and we're hoping that we can continue it for five more