When a male Google employee wrote a leaked manifesto on why women are not suited for careers in technology, Phill Schmitt’s female STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) students were up in arms. “You want to see some girls get fired up? Bring that (letter) up,” he said. Gray Middle School in Tacoma, where Schmitt teaches STEM and after-school MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement), is known for its highly diverse student body. The 36-year-old teacher prides himself on inspiring his students (both boys and girls) who are struggling in math and science to learn creatively with hands-on activities that range from building bridges to computer apps. He’s successfully using STEM as an intervention class to ignite students falling behind, to blaze through those dismal statistics on minorities and women in technology. “I’ve pushed to them that this idea of diversity is how in biology we’ve always overcome any problems. No matter what species, diversity solves problems,” he said. In September, Schmitt was named 2017’s Outstanding Teacher by Washington MESA. We caught up with this former military-man-turned-science-crusader to learn more.
A former disciplinarian:
One of the things that really drove me away from my job in the military — I was a police officer — and it kind of drained on me. We were always dealing with the people not doing the right thing. When (it was recommended) that I should look into teaching (I thought), “You know, maybe I can do something before it’s to the point where people are either stuck in their ways or not given a lot of options.”
How kids fall behind:
We know if kids get disengaged for far too long, it’s not that they actually can’t comprehend the concept or there’s any true learning disorder or problem going on. It’s that they’re bored or tuned out. Year after year you add that up, and next thing you know, you’re behind.
Technology is the future:
The year is 2017. It’s unavoidable where we’re going with STEM. You walk into a grocery store, notice every couple of months there’s more and more self-checkouts. You look at what the big companies want to do — Amazon is not too many years off from wanting to get rid of everyone in the warehouse and have machines do it.
STEM sets life skills:
How can STEM be a remedial class? Well, this is our life. It is. Some of the skills we are talking about — 20 years from now — will be considered some of the most basic, fundamental things that everyone has to have.
Learning with hands-on activities:
We had to start by (asking) — What kinds of things are going to interest (the student)? And for some, it was the gliders and the fact that they could make a piece of balsa wood that could actually glide. And then watching somebody else’s go 40 feet empowered some of them to go, “But wait; what did they do that was different than mine?”
Knowledge is power:
Two years ago, or even three years ago, had you come and asked (this STEM student) a question, you barely would have heard her speak. One of the things that really empowered her is the technology. And it’s not just that it changed her life by letting her create things. It’s that she learned to access information for herself. And when that floodgate opened, it’s like a fire turned on in that girl. If she wants to know something, she will find it. If someone says something she doesn’t believe, she will check it.
The art of finding the answer:
(I’m) teaching them to fish rather than handing them the fish.
A creative curriculum:
There is safety in saying I’m just going to go through this book page 1-300; I know what’s going to be there. There’s no deviation. But the problem is you lose all the originality, the thought, and the creativity.
The diversity of MESA:
This is the most diverse setting I think you could have. You have people that would not hang out with each other under any circumstance still in the same room.
Women make up more than 50 percent of the market:
They all have phones, they all have computers, they play games, they use a whole array of social media — not one or two sites. Every facet of their life is incorporated in that. So, the equity piece is, they’re going to be consumers of it. They also need to be creators or at least have a say in it.
Women and Diversity in Tech:
- Fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and
- engineers is a minority woman.
- In 2015, 4.6 percent of doctorate degrees were
- awarded to minority women.
- Women make up half of the U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce.
- MESA aims to improve racial and gender equality in science and technology careers. Its programs help historically underrepresented students thrive in STEM.